Second in a series of reports from the 2018 Pro-Life Women’s Conference. Part one is here.
My first look at the long list of speakers for the third annual Pro-Life Women’s Conference (PLWC) told me that there weren’t enough hours on the clock for me to be able to hear all of them. And then at the very first gathering – a Friday night dinner – the organizers threw an unscheduled speaker into the already-full program. I had never heard of her.
I thought Really? Sticking someone right after Serrin Foster? That’s just unkind. The longtime leader of Feminists for Life had keynoted the gathering with a challenging talk. She’s a tough act to follow.
I needn’t have been concerned. Savannah Marten could take care of herself.
Revolutionizing the Conversation
Conference emcee Abby Johnson introduced Marten, who’s the director of The Pregnancy Center of Greater Toledo (Ohio). “She is someone who is willing to build bridges. What Savannah has done has absolutely revolutionized the conversation about what it means to be pro-life.”
What she’s done is push past her comfort zone, into working relationships with unconventional allies. That theme was to come up again and again during the conference.
Savannah said that three days into her job as The Pregnancy Center’s director, she was asked by a community leader what the Center was doing about infant mortality. “I said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I was mortified that I had been in the pro-life community for seven years and hadn’t heard one person talking about infant mortality.”
I later looked up figures from the Centers for Disease Control: in 2016, New Hampshire’s infant mortality rate was 3.7 (deaths per 1,000 live births). Nationwide, the rate was 5.9. In Savannah’s state, Ohio, the rate was 7.4. “In my state, the state of Ohio, we are 49th out of 50 for African-American babies dying before their first birthday.
“The pro-life community should be number one in the community showing up for this topic. My life motto is…’what table do I need to be at to be able to use my voice of influence?’ We find the tables we need to be sitting at in order to effectively advance this cause. Where tables do not exist, we build them, and we invite our community to those tables.”
This is when I started taking notes. I knew I was about to hear a story worth sharing.
“I knocked on every door”
She began to educate herself by reaching out to people already working with at-risk women. “I knocked on every door I possibly could in my community. I said ‘I’m not here to talk about abortion. I’m not here to talk about politics. I’m not here to talk to you about anything other than why black babies are not making it to their first birthdays in our community.’ And they invited me to the table.
“These are people who have even stood outside of my pregnancy center with signs in protest. Now all of a sudden they’re welcoming me to the table.”
Faith leaders with whom Savannah had never spoken before were critical to the conversation. “We began to interact with the African-American faith community. Our center had existed for 32 years, and not one predominantly African-American church had any sort of partnership [with us]. I simply said ‘walk me through your neighborhood and talk to me about what is going on in your neighborhood. Talk to me about the babies.’
“And suddenly they began to talk. They began to want to sit down and hear about what we were doing at the pregnancy center.” Over time, mutual trust and respect developed.
Working with a hospital
Savannah’s next step was to approach the major hospital in her area, on behalf of her pregnancy center. “[Hospital representatives] learned that women come to my pregnancy center, at five or six weeks gestation, and they are the number one women at risk for infant mortality and low birth weight. [Later in pregnancy] this hospital cannot even get them to show up for their appointments. Most of them show up at the emergency room and deliver their children there. And we wonder why [children] are not making it to their first birthday.”
Meeting after meeting followed, progress coming by inches. Eventually, a breakthrough: “the largest hospital in northwest Ohio…gave us access to their scheduler.”
Now, “every woman who comes in [to The Pregnancy Center] for an ultrasound leaves our facility with an OB/GYN appointment scheduled for them. If they leave our center and they wait another six weeks to call [the hospital for an appointment], they’re not going to get in.
“We cannot be satisfied with handing these women pamphlet after pamphlet, and referral after referral. Women who are in poverty, women who are in crisis, need more than referrals. They need a life raft. That’s what we’re committed to do.”
Anyone who has been involved in interagency collaborations knows that conflicts arise, some of them irreconcilable. Savannah was faced with one shortly after the scheduling breakthrough with the hospital. “The same week that this hospital gave us access to their scheduler, they signed a transfer agreement with our city’s last abortion facility. I was plagued with this question: do we back out from providing thousands of women health care, because a hospital didn’t make a church decision? Or do we live by our core principle that says we come to the table to effect change and influence those in our community?”
She made a decision that brought her criticism from some pro-life allies. I think her experience is instructive. “Among unpopular opinion, we chose to continue our partnership with this hospital. If the abortion facility is going to enter into a partnership and influence our hospital, then the pro-life community should be at that same table advocating [for] what women in our community need.”
And by the way, that hospital has just accepted Savannah Marten’s application for a board position.
“This is how we effect change. We go to the tables we’re not comfortable in, the tables we’re not invited to, the tables that cause us to think differently and look at things differently.”
“We need Esthers”
Savannah Marten is Christian, and she used a Biblical reference to challenge her listeners at the conference. “We need Esthers to arise. We need Esthers who will stand up and catch the ear of the men and women of influence in our community. But we haven’t done that. We hide in our little pro-life communities. There’s no excuse. There’s no reason for us to hide. Because I have been crucified with Christ, and no longer I who live but he who lives in me. You have nothing to be afraid of. We already have the victory. Be joyful. Stay hopeful. ”
(The PLWC is a non-sectarian gathering, but that doesn’t mean any speaker is bashful about expressing her beliefs.)
She spoke about a community leader, a big-time Democrat, whom she has come to know during her tenure at the Pregnancy Center of Greater Toledo. One day he said to her, “I am now proudly pro-life, because you’ve shown me what true pro-life looks like.”
Savannah Marten could have dismissed as a distraction that long-ago question about infant mortality. She could have discounted it because it came from someone not supportive of her Center’s work. Instead, she had enough humility to acknowledge that she had something to learn. She had the guts to walk up to people she didn’t know and say “please show me around.” She had the patience to work to gain trust from hospital representatives.
And now, she wants to see more of us going out and finding, or building, those tables where conversations can take place.