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Maternity homes provide support in a post-Roe world, but not without conditions

Autumn Hendry moved into the Nesting Place maternity home after she became pregnant, but she wasn't allowed to stay after she began using meth and alcohol again.
Katia Riddle
Autumn Hendry moved into the Nesting Place maternity home after she became pregnant, but she wasn't allowed to stay after she began using meth and alcohol again.

Faith still marvels at the turn her life took in just a few months. "I'm 25 and I have a curfew," she says. "This is so gross. I hate it."

NPR is not using Faith's last name for this story. She says her ex-boyfriend emotionally and verbally abused her, and she doesn't want him to know where she is. On this day, she reclines on a couch in the living room of the recently renovated house where she now lives. It's a maternity home. Faith is 20 weeks pregnant.

Called the Nesting Place, it's part of a Christian organization in Nampa, Idaho, that tries to dissuade people from abortion and persuade them to take up parenthood. Women can live in the home for free while they carry pregnancies. After their babies are born, they can stay for six months longer.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the pugilistic state and federal legal battles that have followed have garnered all the attention. But another quieter story has played out for women in life-changing ways as the number of abortions has declined markedly.

One group of researchers forecasts 60,000 fewer abortions in the year since abortion became largely illegal in much of the United States. These declines are in the states where pregnant women already faced the greatest risks of maternal mortality and poverty.

For the women navigating these dangers, allies are hard to come by. Maternity homes are a rare source of support. They're free — but not without conditions.

Faith struggled to accept the rules: phones turned in at night, home by 11 p.m., visitors only in common spaces, clean drug tests, compliance with the program and contributions to the household. Permission to leave overnight — even for just one night — must be earned through good behavior.

"Those words were scary to me," says Faith. She'd lived on her own for five years before coming here. But she couldn't deny that it was the best option given her circumstances: single, pregnant, little family support, unemployed and homeless.

She believed turning down the offer of a place to live would be a mistake. "I just knew immediately," she says. "I was like, 'I'd be so stupid.'"

Pregnancy comes with many costs

Faith grew up in Idaho in a family of hunters and sportsmen. But she's a born singer. Her voice is her gift. "I am very, like — soulful rock," she says. "Gospel worship is, like, a part of me." Raised Mormon, she left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a teenager and discovered rock 'n' roll and singers like Adele. "I'm a powerhouse, like belter, type of singer."

She knew she had talent, and neither Idaho nor Colorado, where she moved after high school to live with her sister, was the place to foster it. At 21, Faith packed her car for Los Angeles. She worked there in hospitality at some of the city's most breathtaking high-end hotels. She was the woman behind the front desk. "I was good at it," she says. "I loved it."

But last year, she met a man, also an aspiring musician, and threw herself into the relationship. Not long after, she says, she was feeling depressed, unsure where her music career was heading.

With him, her life unraveled. She lost her apartment. They were soon homeless, bouncing from her car to motels. "We would book the studio for music time and also sleep there," she explains. Her boyfriend told her he was a chef, but she became suspicious. He didn't work much.

Faith realized how toxic the relationship was at just about the time she learned she was pregnant. The thought of entanglement with this man forever terrified her. "My first thought was abortion," she says.

But something held her back. She'd had an abortion a few years earlier. She still grieved that pregnancy. She felt certain it would have been a girl. She couldn't stop thinking about the child she might have had.

"I don't live life with regrets," Faith says. "I take on my choices. This is the one thing that I can't not regret. It's really heavy on my heart a lot of the time."

She called her mom back in Idaho. She recalls her mother saying that "you can do this" and that "we'll figure it out. I think that you'll be a wonderful mom."

"I didn't know that that's what I needed to hear until she told me that."

Faith got rid of half her possessions and flew home. She still remembers the relief she felt that day as she watched LA recede in the distance, out the airplane window.

But shortly after she got to Idaho, things began to fall apart there, as well. Her stepfather kicked her out of the house. She had already let keeping the pregnancy take root in her mind. It would be a girl, she thought. The thought of not having a place to bring her baby home to terrified her.

That's when she walked into Robin Watters' crisis pregnancy center.

Maternity homes are a solution the Christian right can support

Back in 2018, Watters read an article in a Christian publication. It posed a question: "What would your state do if Roe v. Wade was overturned?" At the time, that seemed like an outlandish possibility. But it got her thinking. "Wouldn't a maternity home," she says, "be the perfect answer?"

There are more than 400 maternity homes across the U.S., according to the Maternity Housing Coalition, an umbrella advisory group. Many are associated with crisis pregnancy centers and — like the Nesting Place — a Christian ministry.

Watters was already running a crisis pregnancy center called Lifeline Pregnancy Care Center when she began dreaming about building a maternity home. She'd seen hundreds of pregnant young women who needed a place to live and, she thought, would benefit from a relationship with the church. She pitched the idea to her board of directors. They went for it, and contractors were finishing renovations on the home that the center had purchased when the Supreme Court issued the decision that overturned Roe. The Nesting Place opened in February.

Robin Watters was inspired to open the Nesting Place maternity home in order to give pregnant woman a place to live if they chose to not have an abortion.
/ Katia Riddle
Katia Riddle
Robin Watters was inspired to open the Nesting Place maternity home in order to give pregnant woman a place to live if they chose to not have an abortion.

Nampa, a bedroom suburb of Boise, is not a rich community, but Watters says support for this project is broad and deep. To renovate and staff the house, the organization doubled its budget to a half-million dollars annually. It's now working to build an endowment to finance the operation indefinitely without depending on year-to-year donations.

Nearby churches are a primary means of financial support. On a recent day, Keith Wagner, an evangelical pastor, stopped by. It was the first time he'd seen the house since its completion. He seemed awed. "Robin," he said, "This is amazing!"

Sitting in the living room minutes later, Wagner said last summer's Supreme Court decision ending the national right to abortion took the Christian right by surprise.

"Their position has way too often been only defined by what they're against — 'I'm against abortion.'" But Wagner says after the court victory, things changed. "They had to say, 'Oh, hold on a second. OK. We've prayed for this. Now what are we going to do?'"

This year, thousands of low-income women and those living in poverty will have babies in Idaho. And more than 7,000 women a year in Idaho are reliant on Medicaid to cover births. The state now has some of the more austere abortion laws in the country. It's the only state where people can be prosecuted and go to prisonfor helping a minor leave the state to get an abortion.

Wagner says he encourages people in his congregation of 4,000 to consider adoption or foster-parenting. But that level of sacrifice isn't something many are ready to make. Supporting an organization like the Nesting Place gives people a way to put money behind words.

Even in best-case scenarios, this kind of organization cannot give women all the resources they need for 18 or more years of parenting. "They chose life," Wagner said, "but it's expensive." That's why he supports the organization's stated commitment to helping women build financial skills and learn a trade.

Even then, people will fall through cracks.

Maternity homes don't work for everyone

Things have not worked out for at least one person who came to the Nesting Place. Autumn Hendry, who's 29, found the organization when she was nine weeks pregnant. She says her circumstances felt insurmountable: homeless and struggling with substance abuse. Abortion seemed her best option.

But when Hendry met with the staff members at the crisis pregnancy center, they laid out another path: move into the Nesting Place, get clean, have the baby. "They made me feel really comfortable," she said. "I was able to quit using."

She stopped using methamphetamines and alcohol for a few weeks and earned an overnight pass for good behavior. While she was away from the maternity home visiting a friend, she relapsed.

Watters and Nesting Place staff worked to find Hendry in-patient treatment. She enrolled but then left. Now, she's 26 weeks pregnant, unable to stop using and has no place to live.

She regrets not having the abortion. "I don't want to be pregnant anymore," she says. "But it's too late now."

Placing her baby for adoption seems like an obvious path for Hendry. But she has already been down that road. She describes the day several years ago when authorities took her 5-year-old son, Jacob, from school. Child abuse, they said.

"The loss was so bad," she says. Talking about it is wrenching for her. After Jacob's removal, Hendry says, she "dove hard into drugs."

She fought to get Jacob back, but after a few years she could see his life was improving in foster care. She made the excruciating decision to sign over her rights. "I decided it was probably best for him."

When she thinks about adoption and this pregnancy, she relives that trauma.

She's couch-surfing now. On a recent day, she was sitting outside a friend's house not sure whether he'd open the door for her.

The Maternity Housing Coalition acknowledges that substance abuse is a growing issue for maternity homes like the Nesting Place. But these homes are not typically based on a medical model of recovery or equipped to provide in-patient treatment.

"I knew drugs would be in the mix," says Watters, the executive director. "I just didn't know where or how much." The twin issues of homelessness and substance abuse surprised her. She had imagined clients differently.

"I thought it was just like, 'Oh, someone's pregnant, but they have, you know, their parents aren't wanting them to be,'" says Watters. "Or they have no friends, or they need a job." She feels bad for Hendry, but she can't let her come back while she's using drugs. The rules are in place for everyone's safety. "These are choices she's making," she says.

Research shows that women with substance use disorders are at greater risk for unplanned pregnancies. And nearly 20% of people who seek abortions are homeless, according to one study.

Still, Watters sees Hendry's case as a kind of victory. She persuaded this young woman not to have an abortion. "The outcomes in this ministry are so hard to see," Watters says. "It can be years later."

Faith forges a new path

Faith stands in the kitchen of the Nesting Place, sorting a pile of paperwork. "This is what I'm working on now." She gestures to a paper calendar. The days are filled with activities offered by Christian support groups — one for single moms and another that includes instruction on using Christianity to change behaviors. Recently, she says she has found her way to a new faith.

She's hopeful that six months after she has the baby, she'll be eligible for free or reduced housing through a program that helps participants build financial skills. She plans to start massage therapy school in a few weeks.

The staff members at the house breeze in and out. This place is staffed 24 hours a day. There are only two pregnant women living here now, but the staff hopes to expand to four soon.

Another potential resident, 18-year-old Auna, comes by for an interview and to look around.

She is 25 weeks pregnant. There is no turning back now. "This is happening," she says, telling the staff that she'll think about moving in.

Auna asks to be identified only by her first name because she hasn't told her school or employer yet. She doesn't want people to know about her situation or that she considered getting an abortion and even made calls about getting an appointment in the neighboring state of Oregon.

Ultimately, she decided against it. "My mom's always raised me to believe that abortion's not OK. I didn't realize how much it stuck with me until I got pregnant." She's finding out the gender soon, she says with an excited smile. Auna is still in high school.

Faith is also feeling excited, among other emotions. She's grappling with what it will mean to be a single mom; she's lonely at times, carrying a pregnancy without a partner.

She's also mad. She's not planning to ask her ex-boyfriend for help, afraid of what he might do. It's unfair, she says, how little this situation demands of the father of her child. As far as she knows, he's still in Los Angeles. "He gets to be there and continue his music journey and do what he's doing."

She's only 25, Faith reminds herself. She imagines someday — maybe four or five years from now — driving back to Los Angeles to resume her dream of singing professionally, this time with her daughter in tow.

"I'm just pressing pause right now."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Katia Riddle
[Copyright 2024 NPR]