Christian 'Pregnancy Crisis Centers' Masquerading as Health Clinics Tell Women Abortion Causes Cancer and Infertility -- And You're Helping Pay for Them
She sat in the counseling room, looking at the posters of fetal development covering the walls. In her hands she held the pamphlets urging her to forgo abortion.
Together with a partner, the young woman, Alexa Cole, had entered the crisis pregnancy center – CPC, for short – hoping to get more information about abortion and birth control options.
“[It] was in kind of like a shopping plaza area,” Cole later recalled. “It had a sign on the curb or by the sidewalk advertising Pregnancy Resource Center or something along those lines.”
Inside, the office was decorated like a campus health clinic. On the reception desk sat a jar with plastic fetuses for visitors to take home. After check-in, the receptionist ushered Cole and her friend inside the counseling room, then left them there for 10 minutes under the unflinching gaze of the unborn.
Cole had heard about all this before: the health clinic décor, the anti-abortion pamphlets, the rooms decorated with fetus photos. She had heard of video presentations where women lament their decision to terminate their pregnancies. She had even heard of one woman, while waiting for her own appointment, being asked to hold a live infant while the mother excused herself to the restroom.
But unlike some of the other women, who accidentally visited a CPC seeking contraception or help with an unplanned pregnancy, Cole's visit was also a fact-finding mission about the CPC itself.
Cole is the public affairs director for NARAL Pro-Choice California. Like its national organization, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Golden State affiliate has taken the lead in educating the public about CPCs and the public health risk they pose.
“I had a CPC counselor tell me that condoms are like bags of balloons with holes in them,” Cole said of one of her undercover visits.
Cole's undercover visit was just one of many carried out by NARAL volunteers over a two-year period. The results of those visits will be released in a report next month. And the visits mirror a problem playing out across the nation: with the help of federal and state funding, CPCs' mostly unlicensed staff uses deceptive marketing tactics to spread false or misleading information about abortion and contraception, all with little or no outside or government regulation.
CPCs have been around for decades. Most of the 2,300 CPCs in the country operate under three umbrella groups: Care Net, Heartbeat International and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA). In exchange for a membership fee, the umbrella groups provide CPCs with literature, legal and fund-raising advice, and discounts at national conferences.
NARAL California began investigating CPCs after hearing stories from women who, looking for help for an unplanned pregnancy, ended up in a CPC instead. Thinking they were entering a full-service family-planning clinic (many CPCs set up shop in the same office center or across the street from legitimate health clinics) these women were surprised to find counselors who tried to talk them out of abortion.
NARAL staff decided to check them out.
“The first part, which was actually sort of challenging, was identifying them,” said NARAL Pro-Choice California National Director Amy Everitt. “They do a really good job of changing their names and portraying themselves as something they're not.”
They found CPCs with names similar to Planned Parenthood or other comprehensive health clinics.
After tracking down the state's more than 200 CPCs, NARAL California found 22 volunteers to participate in covert visits around the state. After extensive training, pairs of volunteers walked into 14 CPCs and contacted another 18 by phone. Immediately following their contacts, which were not taped or recorded, the volunteers separately filled out information sheets that were compiled into NARAL's results.
The settings varied widely. One volunteer reported that the CPC was set up in somebody's home. Others were in medical offices buildings and were decorated to look like legitimate health clinics.
Once inside the centers, the volunteers were often bombarded with images of aborted fetuses, shocking videos and religious propaganda, all designed to dissuade women from going through with an abortion.
Much of the material distributed by the CPCs contained false or misleading information about the risks of abortion. According to the report, one CPC brochure stated, “No doubt an unwanted pregnancy can cause intense stress and hardship in a variety of ways.... the information is clear – the physical and psychological consequences of abortion can be far worse.”
NARAL volunteers reported being told that abortion can lead to breast cancer, infertility and mental health problems. Sixty percent of CPCs investigated said that condoms are “ineffective in reducing pregnancy and the transmission of certain STDs.”
The NARAL report isn't the first time CPCs have been accused of spreading inaccurate information. In a 2006 investigation, Rep. Harvey Waxman's (D-CA) office investigated CPCs that received federal funding. Using women who posed as pregnant 17-year-olds, the report found that 20 of the 23 CPCs contacted provided “false or misleading information” about the health effects of abortion.
A Care Net representative would not comment for this article until NARAL's report was made public. After initially agreeing to an interview, NIFLA President Thomas Glessner would not return phone calls after receiving a list of interview questions he requested. Repeated calls to Heartbeat International were not returned.
The problem with CPCs isn't limited to how they operate. As full-service clinics shutter due to lack of funds or threats of violence, making birth control and abortion services less accessible for many of the nation's women, CPCs are expanding their reach.
Care Net, which oversees the largest network of CPCs, launched an urban outreach initiative 2003 targeting African Americans and Latinas – two demographic groups most in need of comprehensive reproductive health services.
Care Net and Heartbeat International together run the dubiously named Option Line, a 24-hour call center whose main goal is to schedule referral appointments to the nearest CPC. The call line receives 16,000 calls per month.
CPC networks have also worked to place ads on MTV, BET and on buses and billboards across the country.
Care Net will soon launch a campus outreach effort to increase its visibility to college-age women. In 2008, the Feminist Majority Foundation found that 48 percent of four-year universities that responded to a questionnaire routinely referred women who might be pregnant to CPCs.
Another troubling issue is how CPCs obtain government funding. Some receive federal funding through abstinence-only education funds.
Some states offer drivers pro-life license plates, with fees collected for the plates going to CPC organizations.
So far, few states offer a similar pro-choice plate with funds going toward comprehensive family planning services. In February, Virginia approved a “Choose Choice” plate. One group, License to Choose, is trying to bring a pro-choice license plate to Florida.
NARAL's goal isn't to shut CPCs down; it's to get them to be more upfront about the type of information or services they offer.
With NARAL'S efforts, some jurisdictions are pushing back against CPCs that use deceptive advertising or provide false or misleading information.
Recently, Montgomery County, MD and Austin, TX passed laws requiring CPCs to disclose that they do not refer visitors for abortions.
The Montgomery County law, which passed in February, requires a center that does not provide abortions or referrals for abortions to post disclaimers stating it “does not have a licensed medical professional on staff.”
Last week, Centro Tepeyec Women's Center, a CPC based in Silver Spring, MD, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, arguing that the law is unconstitutional because it restricts freedom of speech.
Some state lawmakers have moved toward regulating CPCs. In 2007, bills to regulate CPCs were introduced in New York, Oregon, Texas and West Virginia. In 2008, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia considered similar bills.
On the federal level, 33 members of Congress and five senators have co-sponsored the “Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women's Services Act,” which would empower the Federal Trade Commission to sanction CPCs that promote themselves as offering comprehensive reproductive health services.
Still, for the most part, CPCs operate across the country with little or no independent or government regulation.
NARAL California hopes this latest report will help bolster efforts to pass legislation forcing CPCs to disclose their pro-life, anti-abortion stance.
Alexa Cole worries about the young, frightened women who enter CPCs being denied their right to accurate information – and being dissuaded from their right to choose.
“Of course, I know better. But for a young woman who doesn't know more?”