Leslee Unruh: The Queen of Ab-Only and CPCs Now Leads Anti-Choice Efforts in South Dakota

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Leslee Unruh: The Queen of Ab-Only and CPCs Now Leads Anti-Choice Efforts in South Dakota

Martha Kempner

Leslee Unruh's fundraising is one of the forces behind South Dakota's newest abortion restrictions.  Who is she and what does she believe?

Leslee Unruh

Leslee Unruh

In her piece on the fight to make abortions even harder to come by in South Dakota, Robin Marty cites Leslee Unruh as one of the fundraisers behind the money that is allowing the state to move forward despite the likelihood of an expensive legal battle. 

Though perhaps not a nationally known figure in the abortion rights debate, those of us who have been fighting against abstinence-only-until-marriage programs know Ms. Unruh quite well. As the founder and head of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, Unruh was the voice of the abstinence-only movement for many years. In fact, it was Unruh who I was sent to debate in my very first TV appearance.

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We were debating the best type of sex education for young people.  I was arguing for comprehensive sex education while she was taking the side of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Our backstage conversation was friendly and off-topic; she’d been in a car accident the week before and was having a lot of back trouble (good thing she’s married to a chiropractor).  Our on-camera debate was predictable.  She accused me of giving up on the true potential of children and handing out condoms like candy.  I accused her of depriving kids of the information they really needed and having an underlying religious agenda.  She said kids shouldn’t have sex.  I said should or shouldn’t, they were.  She said abstinence pledges worked.  I said critical thinking worked better. There was one comical bit when Unruh mentioned “lubricant,” a word she couldn’t say without giggling, and refused to define it for the host. But for the most part it was civil, maybe even boring.

But then at the end, when asked if there was anything else she wanted to add, Unruh got very emotional, almost teary, and said something to effect of: “we have to stop lying to girls, we have to tell them the truth and make sure they understand that if they have sex before marriage they are ruining their future, they will not get good jobs or have happy marriages.”  (I am paraphrasing here because it was over five years ago but I remember the part about good jobs very clearly.)  The host asked me to respond and I tried to calmly counter with facts, I believe I said “well, 63 percent of high school seniors have had sex and I don’t think it’s possible that none of them will ever get a good job.”  

When I watched the tape a few months later, however, I realized that as Unruh was giving her impassioned plea, I forgot everything they taught me about facial expressions in media training—the camera caught me with a look on my face that screamed “is this women is crazy?”   Turns out I am neither the first nor the last person to pose that question.

Her Professional Journey

Leslee Unruh’s professional journey from vitamin salesperson to anti-abortion activist has been well documented over the years.  In 1984, Unruh opened the Alpha Center a classic crisis pregnancy center designed to “help” women facing unplanned pregnancies by convincing them not to choose abortion.  Today the center’s public website proclaims:

“Pregnant? Confused? You have options—we can help. The Alpha Center is here to serve you. We offer comprehensive services to help with your pregnancy needs, including free pregnancy tests, to help you in making a decision about your pregnancy.” According to the website, center staff is also available 24-hours-a-day to hear from “anyone who has experienced the pain from an abortion” because the “time to heal is now.”  

A timeline on a different website also run by the center explains how, “A dream of saving lives, changing lives, and redeeming lives became a reality. Through many struggles, some defeats, and many successes, the dream built in the basement of a home has grown so large as to purchasing the remains of what used to be a building of death and redeeming it into a ministry of hope.”  The last albeit poorly written line refers to the Alpha Center’s 2000 purchase of “an old abortion clinic.”  The time line explains that Unruh also founded the Omega Maternity Home, a place where unwed mothers could live rent-free during their pregnancy, in 1986 but sold it in 1994 in order to finance the Alpha’s Centers new facilities. Other entries in the timeline include: “1993: Leslee leads South Dakota parental notification, 24-hour waiting period and informed consent law;” “2006: HB1217 was referred to a public vote and the Vote Yes for Life campaign was started to ban nearly all abortions in the state;”  and “2011: Alpha Center helps protect women from coerced abortion through assisting in the passage of South Dakota pro life House Bill 1217.”

Also noted in the timeline were Unruh’s various forays into the abstinence and chastity arena culminating in the 1997 founding of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse (later just called the Abstinence Clearinghouse so as not to leave out its international work.) As Amanda Robb explains in her 2008 expose on Unruh published in MORE Magazine: “after working with hundreds of women who got pregnant unintentionally, she says she began to realize that this kind of counseling put the cart before the horse in women’s lives. To truly empower women, she became convinced, you have to ‘save them from sexual activity.’”  The Abstinence Clearinghouse worked to do just that by creating materials, speaking about the importance of chastity, and sponsoring purity balls in which fathers and daughters exchange rings as a symbol of the daughter’s purity.

In our TV interview, Unruh passionately explained that she personally saw how well abstinence vows worked because she was invited to countless wedding in which fathers would remove these rings as part of giving their daughters away. Trying to hide just how creepy I find this particular father-daughter bonding ritual, I countered that while it may have worked for these families, researchers at Yale and Columbia found that 88 percent of young people who pledged to remain virgins until marriage nonetheless engaged in pre-marital sex. 

Unruh’s timing on creating the National Abstinence Clearinghouse was impeccable as it coincided with the first big pot of federal money for abstinence-only-until-marriage programming.  Not only did she become a national figure in the abstinence-only-until-marriage debate, both of her organizations benefitted immensely from federal funding. In federal Fiscal Year 2008, for example, the Abstinence Clearinghouse received $35,000 in Title V abstinence-only funding (it was a sub-grantee for the state of South Dakota) while the Alpha Center received $600,000 directly from the federal government under the Community-Based Abstinence Education funding stream. 

What She Believes

For many years, Leslee Unruh was the go-to-person for journalists and producers working on stories about abstinence-only programs, chastity, purity balls, and other tangentially related topics.   As such, there are whole host of sound bites and quotes, many more bizarre then the next,  that can be strung together to determine what exactly she believes.  Robb points to this diatribe in a May 2007 appearance on Fox News in which Unruh discussed a birth control pill that suppresses menstruation.  She said: “This is a real war on women and war on children. We do not need big pharma, National Abortion Rights Action League, who have had a war on children and on babies, to now come in with another drug and to play God!…wanting us, women, who are feminine and have fertility and it’s something to celebrate, wanting us to be like men — c’mon!”

It can also help to look at the mission and position statements of the organizations she founded. The Abstinence Clearinghouse is very clear on what it believes on topics related to abstinence and sex.  As I cannot do any of these justice by paraphrasing, here some of the organization’s position statements:

Masturbation: “Abstinence Clearinghouse believes the focus of the marriage union is a shared intimacy between two people, a husband and a wife. The arousal response in individuals is the most easily trained response in the human body. Sexual self stimulation along with fantasy or pornography can actually train a person to bond to pictures, objects, etc., and may eventually leave the person unable to respond sexually to a real person. Sex therapists consider masturbation the first stage of sexual addiction for sex addicts. This practice should not be encouraged as a ‘safe’ sexual practice.” 

Homosexuality “Abstinence Clearinghouse believes that emotional intimacy is an innate need for all people, but sexual activity does not replace true intimacy. Friendship with another person of the same sex is healthy, but does not need sexual activity to validate its importance. Research shows the homosexual lifestyle is not a healthy alternative for males or females. The male and female body are not anatomically suited to accommodate sexual relations with members of the same sex. Sexual practices in the homosexual lifestyle are considered very dangerous for disease, infection, etc. This lifestyle should not be encouraged as healthy or as an equal alternative to marriage.”

Images in Educational Materials: “Abstinence Clearinghouse believes it is unnecessary to use graphic images to teach age-appropriate sexuality education or abstinence education. Neurochemical science affirms all imagery is real to the brain whether the setting is scientific, educational or pornographic. Diagrams of internal organs are acceptable, but images or pictures of external genitalia in any form, whether diseased or healthy, can be determined [sic] to the health of young men and women’s minds.”

It is slightly harder to determine exactly what the Alpha Center believes as its website, at least the one that pops up first on a Google search, is a little cagey.  Unlike many crisis pregnancy centers, Alpha Center does not boast a religious mission or suggest that it is in the business of preventing abortions.  According to this website: “The Alpha Center is a nonprofit agency that provides a comprehensive range of services to women and men involved in an unplanned pregnancy. The Alpha Center has been helping women and families facing an unplanned pregnancy since 1984. Over the last twenty years, women of all ages from various cultural backgrounds have received the help and support they needed when faced with a crisis pregnancy.”  It lists it services as pregnancy tests, abortion information, options counseling, and ultrasound exams (as determined by a counselor), in addition to pregnancy support classes and relationship counseling.  It all sounds innocuous enough, though those of us who know about crisis pregnancy centers would be tipped off by the offer of abortion recovery counseling.

Interestingly, the Alpha Center has a second website, www.alphacenterevents.org, hosted by www.faithwebsites.net, which is much more explicit about its background and beliefs.  This is the website that includes the organization’s full timeline and history.  Moreover, in its “About Us” section, this website explains, “The entire Alpha Center story was inspired by God, and the rising up of Godly people with courage to be salt and light; to take action against the most evil act in this generation – the killing of innocent unborn babies and the deliberate deception of millions of women.”

Her Personal Story (or Stories)

It seems that Leslee Unruh is used to having two different stories when it fits her purposes. In 2003, the Abstinence Clearinghouse held its annual conference in Las Vegas.  She joked with a reporter for the Washington Post that being in Vegas was like coming home because that’s where she married her husband, Allen, in 1972. “‘Chapel of the Bells,’ she says. “There I was, in my bridal gown, the whole thing, full-length, with the train.’  ‘Can you imagine?’ Allen, her husband says. ‘The queen of abstinence married in Vegas?’”  According to the article, “His family didn’t like her very much, so the couple ran away to Vegas. And lo, their marriage was blessed, and it took: ‘Five kids, two of my sons are doctors. Abstinence works, people. My daughter saved her first kiss for her wedding day. I’m here to tell ya.’” 

While it makes a nice story, it turns out that Unruh herself did not remain abstinent until her wedding day—either of them.  Moreover, neither of them took place in Vegas in 1972. 

In interviews with Amanda Robb for the MORE expose, Leslee Unruh told an entirely different story about her marriage. She told Robb that she met Allen at a state fair in 1976.  She then explained that in 1978 or 79 she had an abortion at the urging a physician who thought the pregnancy would aggravate an underlying health condition.  She insinuated that Allen—who was giving anti-abortion speeches around the state at that time—was angry with her for having the procedure and, at the very least, allowed Robb to assume that she was pregnant with Allen’s baby at the time. 

When Robb investigated further, however, she found a very different story.  Unruh did have an abortion though the timing of it is not quite clear.  Unruh later clarified that at the time she was actually pregnant with the child of her first husband, Larry Kutzler, the father of her first three children whom she married in February of 1973—6 months before the birth of their first son.  She divorced Kutzler in September of 1977 and married Allen in November of 1978.  

I bring this past up not because I care who she slept with and when or because I want to point out that Unruh is a hypocrite for telling young women to do as she says not as she did. I actually believe that learning from one’s mistake and trying to steer others away from them can be a noble goal.  But as the head of a crisis pregnancy center—that tells women, among other untruths, that abortion causes breast cancer—it seems that Unruh has made lying a part of her life. 

Questionable Practices

Not surprisingly, she’s been called out on questionable practices in all of her organizations.  In 1987, the Alpha Center was charged with 24 counts of unlicensed adoption and foster care practice, and false advertising.  Robb explains, “According to the indictment, several young women stated that they had been offered money to carry their pregnancies to term and then give their babies up for adoption. On the center’s behalf, Unruh entered a plea of no contest to five counts (the rest of the charges were dismissed) and paid a $500 fine.”  The Alpha Center’s more faith-based website has a section dedicated to “false allegations” in which it explains: “Many years ago, false allegations were made about the Alpha Center leading to indictments.  While the charges were dropped, enemies of the Alpha Center continue to repeat these lies.” Unruh’s plea deal is not mentioned. 

More recently, in 2006, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed an IRS complaint against both the Alpha Center and the National Abstinence Clearinghouse alleging that the organizations violated federal law by failing to report their lobbying activities.  According to CREW, “Both NAC and Alpha Center claimed on their 990 tax forms that they engaged in no lobbying activities. Yet, despite these assertions, Ms. Unruh, acting in her official capacity, has repeatedly been quoted in newspaper reports as lobbying legislators to fund abstinence education programs and to ban abortion.”   CREW also noted that the Alpha Center violated federal tax law by openly endorsing (in email and newspaper articles) John Stratman, a board member for both of the organizations, in his bid for the school board.

Out of the Abstinence Spotlight

The debate she and I taped aired on some short-lived newsmagazine on HDNet years before anyone I knew had High Definition Cable so I doubt anyone saw it or caught my “she’s-got- to-be-crazy” facial expression. Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that I’m not the only who has thought of Unruh as nice but a little nuts. 

As the abstinence-only-until-marriage movement’s battle became tougherbecause of research that showed its approach was ineffective, states that began to reject the money, and public opinion that swayed back towards more comprehensive educationUnruh was turned to less and less.  In fact, the movement gave birth to a whole new organization that seemed to have as its unspoken mission, finding a new national spokesperson for the issue. That role was filled by Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, which was founded in 2006. One of the specific goals listed on that organization’s website was to “rebrand the abstinence message to provide positive representation in the public square.”

The Alpha Center and the Abstinence Clearinghouse still exists but they have lost much of their federal funding as have many abstinence-only program providers.  Perhaps this leaves Unruh with more time to concentrate on her original passionpreventing the women of South Dakota from exercising their right to choose abortion–with state funding to do her “work.”