The Anti-Choice Plan to Lure Women to Christian Pregnancy Centers

Many crisis pregnancy centers are converting into limited-service medical clinics. With Planned Parenthood under attack, will they be more of a draw for women?

There are between 2,500 and 4,000 crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) operating in the US, all devoted to preventing the women who walk through their doors from getting abortions (meanwhile fewer than 2,000 clinics offer abortion). Some of these anti-abortion centers are part of massive evangelical Christian ministries, some are standalones, and others are attached to individual Catholic churches, whose priests sometimes bless the centers' ultrasound machines to power them with extra holiness for their main task: convincing a woman who may want to have an abortion to have a baby instead. Thanks to George W. Bush's breezy hand-outs of public money to Christian abstinence programs, many of these religious, anti-choice centers got millions in federal funding in the 2000s.

Many centers don't look too different from regular women's health clinics, and that's the whole point. If a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy walks into a CPC assuming it's a women's health clinic and not a front in the abortion wars, she's more likely to believe what they tell her there: like when a staffer says that abortion causes breast cancer (not according to actual studies), or that she might bleed to death on the table (so unlikely it's close to impossible), or that she can't have an abortion if she lacks legal residency (blatantly false), or any number of misleading and manipulative tactics documented in investigations of CPCs over the years. (In one case, a volunteer handed an undercover investigator a model of a 12-week-old fetus to "show her boyfriend.") (See the 2004 Waxman report [PDF] and the results of an undercover investigation by NARAL Pro-choice Maryland Fund [PDF].)

Not all CPCs misinform women about their intentions or wave plastic fetuses in their faces. Some are clear about their anti-abortion stance and a lot offer services helpful to children after they've exited the womb, like child care and parental education, which is not something that can be said for most of the players in the anti-choice movement.

Still, multiple investigations have revealed that CPCs use a wide variety of tactics to lure pregnant women in order to scare, guilt and manipulate them into carrying their pregnancies to term. Some advertise in the same part of the Yellow Pages as abortion providers. Many are situated right next to Planned Parenthood clinics. A representative of the National Abortion Federation told AlterNet a member clinic reported that volunteers from a neighboring CPC have intercepted women headed into the clinic and steered them into the CPC instead.

There's another strategy that's gotten less attention: an under-the-radar campaign by large anti-choice organizations, like the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates and Focus on the Family, to fund and guide the conversion of CPCs into licensed, limited-service medical clinics, ramping up their services to include pregnancy tests and ultrasound. Although they offer only limited women's health services -- none offer mammograms, for instance -- medical clinic status has led many to start offering early prenatal care, prenatal vitamins, STI testing and even eye exams. A few have started advertising pap smears.

The nationwide effort to create limited medical clinics that promote an anti-choice, anti-birth control, abstinence, and conservative Christian message has been on since the late 1990s. But in a bad economy, and with GOP governors across the country having spent the last legislative session coming up with endlessly creative ways to choke off funding to Planned Parenthood clinics (which many low-income women depend on for their health care), women's health choices are dwindling.

That can make CPCs that are pitched as medical clinics more of a draw than ever.

A woman walking into a regular CPC can't get much beyond "counseling" from anti-abortion volunteers. (Legally, the best they can do is give her a stick to pee on.) But in a crisis pregnancy medical clinic she can talk to a nurse and technically even a physician (the clinics have to be overseen by a licensed doctor but they're not always on site). All of this is free. On its website, NIFLA, the main group behind the push to convert CPCs into medical clinics, boasts that conversion leads to "major increases in the numbers of clients they are seeing on a monthly basis, as well as a dramatic increase in the number of clients choosing life."

Unsurprsingly, there's a lot of right-wing muscle behind the push to make CPCs more attractive to women who may be considering abortion. ("If you are pregnant, or might be pregnant, you might be feeling overwhelmed" an ad suggests over a picture of a wide-eyed young woman on the CareNet website. "You are not alone" consoles the tagline.)

In 1998, NIFLA established the Life Choice Project (TLC), which equips CPCs with legal tools and information to convert to medical clinics. They have a team of law consultants to help shepperd CPCs through the complex legal process, and an advisory board of medical professionals to oversee member clinics and make sure they comply with standard medical practices.

This is serious business. The NIFLA training manual preemptively scolds, "Converting to medical clinic status means not only doing the right things, but doing things right. There simply are no short cuts. You must build your medical clinic on sound business and medical practices or risk paying the price." The program provides ongoing legal advice, so even after a member center has converted, NIFLA consultants are on call to help them navigate state and federal regulations.

They also help with their ultrasound needs by referring them to a manufacturer that offers a discount price. In 2009 the group spent $100,000 helping CPCs convert.

The center also trains nurses and doctors on the legal issues surrounding the use of limited ultrasound in medical clinics. According to their site, 2,000 nurses have gone through the program. Overall the group spent $627,863.46 in 2009 helping out their member CPCs, including nurse and doctor trainings, the conversion process and ongoing legal advice pre and post-transition.

Focus on the Family is also involved. In 2004 the anti-gay, anti-choice religious-right group starting handing out "TLC grants" that fully fund the conversion of CPCs that make it through their application process, which FoF uses to determine two things: if a CPC has its act together (with a functioning board, CEOs and directors) to handle the legal hurdles of the transition, and perhaps more importantly, whether the center is worth investing in.

The latter consideration rides on which CPCs are the most likely to influence the most women to have babies. According to the assessment form, a center is more likely to get a grant if it operates in a large metro area, in a state with public funding for abortion beyond rape, incest or if the life of the mother is at risk. It also helps if the state gets an A or B grade for abortion access from NARAL. Another question asks if four or more public abortion providers serve its city.

Also advantageous is the presence of a large number of young women likely to find themselves pregnant, single and confused about it: "City has a four-year university with a student body of 15,000 or more (age 18- 26, excluding online students), that’s a target audience your organization will serve," according to the self-assessment form.

If their CPC is picked for the grant (or chosen to receive "Tender Loving Care," as the FoF site puts it), Focus on the Family puts up the CEO or executive director and a board member in a hotel for two nights while they undergo the first round of training and information sessions.

FoF spokesperson Kelly Rosati told AlterNet that the total cost of conversion for an individual clinic is about $9,500. The group also covers the cost of an ultrasound machine through their Option UltraSound program. Recently, FoF bragged that since the inception of Option Ultrasound in 2004, "the estimated number of babies saved is nearly 90,000 precious lives!" (The ultrasound grant is in addition to the grant paying the cost of conversion.)

That's quite a payload, but ultrasounds are not the only potential perk. FoF's Rosati says that as medical centers continue to expand their services, they will further "integrate into health care delivery systems in the community."

Rosati would like to see these centers turn into "viable alternatives" for Planned Parenthood clinics. "We're not there yet. It's more of the exception at this point. But we will see more and more of this, as life advocates seek to be more effective."

So in Indiana, where Mitch Daniels signed a law barring Medicaid patients from receiving heath care or obtaining contraception from Planned Parenthood clinics (a judge has issued a temporary injunction), there are 21 NIFLA-affiliated, anti-choice medical centers (and 50 NIFLA affiliated CPCs overall).

One of them is the Evansville Christian Life Center, which describes its mission as "restoring the lives of families and individuals through hope in Jesus Christ." The center claims to offer Pap tests, STD testing and limited ultra-sound. That's not close to what a woman can get at a Planned Parenthood clinic, but the organization's website sells the centers' services by claiming: "State-of-the-art medical facilities focused on giving women the knowledge they need to make the most informed choices about their health possible." It claims to serve "women facing pregnancy and women without insurance."

In September, a NIFLA-affiliated CPC called Pregnancy Resource Center in Minnesota (where Planned Parenthood had to close six clinics in the state after Congressional budget cuts to Title X) hawked the enticing combo of HIV testing, Pap smear and a Little Caesar's pizza in an ad placed in the back of the St. Cloud university student guide book.

The website of Choices Inc. in Kansas (10 CPC "clinics" to three Planned Parenthood clinics; a judge just blocked a law defunding Planned Parenthood that would have forced them to shut down one of them) advertises physician care and features a photo of a doctor feeling a newborn baby's heartbeat. On the site, Scott Stringfield, the clinic's medical director, promises to "Treat you with kindness, love you enough to tell the truth, give you the best medical care we can provide and remain by your side through this difficult time."

Whether they try to draw women in with crappy pizza or the promise of free access to a doctor, the big picture stays the same. The NIFLA FAQ page assures interested parties that all the bells and whistles of medical clinic status will not thwart the clinics' endgame. "If our center becomes a medical clinic, will we cease to provide crisis intervention counseling? No! A Pregnancy Resource Medical Clinic continues to provide crisis intervention counseling for women who are in crisis pregnancies."

Of course, pregnancy choices are not the only ones in which they'd intervene. Most clinics advance the sexual obsessions that have fired up the religious right and anti-choicers for decades. Birth control (generally a more concrete obstacle to abortion than say, a bible) is not handed out, Thomas Glessner, NIFLA's founder, told AlterNet. Many centers aggressively promote abstinence and wrap up reproductive choices in the Christian narrative of error and redemption through Jesus.

Wisconsin's Hope Pregnancy Center provides a guide to "Your Sex Life," that undermines the effectiveness of condoms in preventing pregnancy ("Do you put your trust in a flimsy bit of latex? Sex can be unsafe, even with a condom..."). They also assure the devirginized that there's hope ... in virginity number 2: "Secondary virginity is all about second chances. You have one right now. Make a commitment today that you will not have sex again until your wedding night. Stand by your new decision without wavering. Call us, we want to help you stand firm."

Indiana's East Pregnancy Center, a crisis medical clinic that's part of Life Centers Ministry, describe their mission thusly: "At the heart of our life-saving mission is our passion to proclaim biblical truth that results in changed lives to the glory of God. We believe the love and salvation found in Jesus Christ is the hope for those facing unplanned pregnancies." To that end, Life Centers say all of their staff and volunteers adhere to a list of "truths," including, "We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible authoritative Word of God" and "We believe that for the salvation of the lost and sinful man, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential, and that this salvation is received through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and not as a result of good works."

Despite their religious overtones, CPCs continue to draw public money, mostly from various shadowy corners of state budgets.

But that's not the only boost they're getting from states. Recently South Dakota legislators passed a bill that would have forced women not only to wait 72 hours before getting an abortion, but to pay a visit to an anti-abortion CPC as well.

A judge put a temporary moratorium on the law, but Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, who argued against the law in court, told AlterNet (before the injunction) that these types of laws tend to mushroom throughout the country once conservative legislators in one state give them a try.

Meanwhile, bright lights of the Republican Party, like John Ensign and Michele Bachmann, have pushed for increased funding for CPCs, even while their party guts funding to Planned Parenthood clinics.

So as one arm of the anti-choice movement tries to eviscerate the nationwide women's health services delivered by Planned Parenthood for decades, another is helping boost a version that offers severely limited services stacked with an anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-sex, aggressively Christian worldview.

Tana Ganeva is an AlterNet editor. Follow her on Twitter. You can email her at [email protected].