Grace crowd

A conference at Grace Fellowship Church at McClellan Saturday brought together special speakers, food and conversation about how to help pregnant women handle their situations without abortion.

Abortion could be illegal in Alabama in less than six months, but Michelle Payne says there’s still plenty of work for Sav-A-Life Pregnancy Resource Center to do.

The group is best known locally for operating crisis pregnancy centers that urge women to choose birth over abortion. But Payne, executive director of the group’s Calhoun County branch, says the group offers classes for new parents, supplies them with baby items and even urges young moms to get their diplomas.

“Most women, when they’re thinking about having an abortion, it’s because they don’t feel supported,” Payne said.

Payne and other Sav-A-Life volunteers drew a crowd of 68 women to a conference Saturday morning at Grace Fellowship Church at McClellan. One goal of the event, organizers said, was to attract new volunteers to the group.

The event was planned long before the Alabama Legislature passed the nation’s most restrictive abortion law. Lawmakers last month voted to ban all abortions except when needed to “avoid a serious health risk” to the mother.

The law doesn’t go into effect until mid-November, and only if it survives court challenges. It’s among a raft of abortion restrictions red-state legislatures passed this year — any one of which could land before a Supreme Court with a newly conservative majority.

Alabama’s ban, which lacks exceptions for rape and incest, has caused even some anti-abortion conservatives to cringe. And it has generated howls of protests from observers who say the state is among the worst at caring for children once they’re born. The state has the nation’s fifth-highest infant mortality rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Calhoun County has 314 kids in foster care and 34 families to foster them, local officials said this week.

“I keep hearing that criticism,” Payne said. Asked if state government should provide more support for young moms and kids, she said it shouldn’t have to.

“I truly believe that if the church steps up and does what it needs to do, I don’t know why we would need that,” she said.

Every woman at the event was from a local church. As women ate breakfast in the church’s fellowship hall, Payne went around the room and asked what congregations they were from. First Baptist in Saks. Golden Springs Baptist. Living by Faith Ministries. Some came from as far as Cherokee County and Tallapoosa, Ga.

There was little talk of the abortion law. No one seemed ready to celebrate a victory.

“I give it about a 50/50 chance,” said Kristin Brock, an Anniston resident who’s been volunteering for Sav-A-Life for about a year. Like others at the event, she said she supported the new law, but was more focused on local work.

For her, she said, that includes “counting baby bottle money.” Organizers said the group has brought in about $50,000 through the “baby bottle boomerang,” in which church members fill empty baby bottles with donations.

Speakers at the conference told stories that were more personal than political. Jackie McClain of Oxford, the keynote speaker, told the audience about her experience raising two adopted children.

“God has called us to a ministry,” McClain said. “Wherever you are, whether you’re a nurse, you’re doctor, you’re working in public health… a lot of people think it’s a platform, but even in your homes, raising your children, that’s a ministry.”

Many of the women in the audience seemed to already be involved with the group, but there were a few new faces. Amy Speicher, 21, drove up from Wedowee for the conference. Just a few days earlier, she said, she was at an abortion clinic with an anti-abortion group.

“I wouldn’t call myself a protester,” she said. “I did have a sign, but I wasn’t trying to be ugly to anybody.”

She said she wasn’t sure what role the group might have for her if she did volunteer.

Payne said the group administered 265 pregnancy tests last year at its Calhoun County offices and taught 381 parenting classes. Conversions are important to the faith-based group: They counted 17 “professions of faith” in 2018.

There’s no count of the number of women who decided against abortion after visiting the group. Payne said women often don’t follow up after a visit.

Payne said the group’s members had “lots of conversations” about the lack of rape and incest provisions in the Alabama law. Asked the group’s official position on the matter, she said “rape and incest are serious concerns,” but are part of only a small fraction of abortions in the state.

“Your circumstances in life aren’t what make you valuable,” she said.