Human Rights

Exposing Anti-Choice Abortion Clinics

Misleading 'crisis pregnancy centers' are appearing across America, aiming to limit or even prevent women from exploring all of their legal health care options.
According to a recent Planned Parenthood email, a 17-year-old girl mistakenly walked into a crisis pregnancy center thinking it was Planned Parenthood, which was next door. "The group took down the girl's confidential personal information and told her to come back for her appointment, which they said would be in their 'other office' (the real Planned Parenthood office nearby)."

When she showed up for her nonexistent appointment, she was met by the police, who had been erroneously tipped that a minor was being forced to abort. The crisis pregnancy center staff followed up this harassment by staking out the girl's house, phoning her father at work, and even talking to her classmates about her pregnancy, urging them to harass her.

I contacted Jennifer Jorczak of Planned Parenthood of Indiana to verify this story, and while she was unable to provide details out of respect for the patient's privacy, she confirmed that everything in the initial action alert email was true.

This humiliating and frustrating experience seems, by all accounts, to await more American women in the near future. And the best part? It's funded by your tax dollars.

Even here in the liberal city of Austin, Texas, the signs are everywhere: "Pregnant? Need help?"

If you're facing an unwanted pregnancy, one of the possible solutions would be getting un-pregnant -- still a legal, if sometimes difficult-to-find, option in America. But the "crisis pregnancy centers" these signs advertise seek to limit and, in some cases, prevent women from exploring their legal options for health care.

Dishonest as these types of crisis pregnancy centers are, it's hard to argue against their right to exist, especially since most of their clients enter their doors willingly. However, the aforementioned incident reported by Planned Parenthood of Indiana indicates that some groups are not above using more aggressive methods to stop women from aborting pregnancies.

These tactics are even more troubling in light of the growing legislative support to direct taxpayer money towards crisis pregnancy centers and away from places that provide actual reproductive services to low-income women. Texas, as usual, stands at the forefront of conservative innovation in the art of draining public funding while reducing services. In the latest round of cuts, $25 million was sliced from the state budget for family planning services and $5 million of that money was set aside in a rider from Republican Sen. Tommy Williams to fund crisis pregnancy centers.

Peggy Romberg of the Women's Health and Family Planning Association of Texas estimates that 17,000 low-income women will lose access to affordable family planning as a result of the cuts, adding to the 75 percent of low-income Texas women who are eligible for state-funded family planning services but who lack actual access. And that's just in Texas. According to Planned Parenthood crisis pregnancy centers across the nation "have received $60 million of government grants."

Only two organizations applied for the $5 million in available funding for Texas's crisis pregnancy centers, and the one that received it, the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, appears to have been formed just to acquire this money. The TPCN is associated with a group called Real Alternatives, an anti-choice organization that has put so little effort into their "educational" materials that the site goes so far as to have sections called "Telling Your Boyfriend" and "Telling Your Parents," seemingly ignorant of the fact that most abortions are performed on adult women, many of whom are married.

Anti-choice activists openly regard family planning clinics like Planned Parenthood as primarily feminist organizations that just so happen to provide health care. Sarah Wheat of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, who spent a considerable amount of time researching crisis pregnancy centers and has compiled a full report on them, explained that the first crisis pregnancy center was opened in 1967 by Robert Pearson as "the service arm of the anti-choice movement." Crisis pregnancy centers have a long history of providing the absolute minimum of services required to maintain the illusion that they provide care while they further their actual goal of trying to persuade women out of abortion -- sometimes using deceptive methods.

Peggy Romberg recollected that when she worked for Planned Parenthood in the '80s, crisis pregnancy centers would actually provide shelter to pregnant women right up until the eligible date for legal abortion had passed. They would then turn the women out, and it was Romberg's agency that was tasked with explaining to these desperate women that it was too late.

These hardline tactics were softened after a number of states began cracking down. Texas's own attorney general sued to prevent crisis pregnancy centers from advertising themselves as abortion providers in 1985. As a result the centers evolved to put on a better show of caring about women's health by advertising themselves as places to obtain full medical information.

But the kinder, gentler crisis pregnancy centers might be even more problematic than those engaging in more open harassment, as in the Indiana incident. The gentler face of the centers makes their health care pretenses slightly more plausible, even if their function is primarily political. Sarah Wheat said she and her staff regularly make phone calls to crisis pregnancy centers to learn more about the services offered there and, as a general rule, these pseudo-clinics have few or no paid employees, no medical personnel on staff and no real facilities to provide any medical care. Generally speaking, the medical treatment provided by the largely volunteer staff is nothing more than handing clients a pregnancy test that could be purchased over the counter for $10.

A friend warned me to be careful when contacting crisis pregnancy centers, as they are known to give callers the runaround, refusing to give information over the phone and asking you to come in for an appointment. Curious, I called Austin Life Care, a prominent local crisis pregnancy center and grilled the unlucky receptionist about the services offered. She said they offered pregnancy tests and counseling. When I asked about the credentials of the counselors, she replied, "Well, we have all different levels of education and some of them are really academic."

I followed up by asking what kind of medical staff they had on hand and she replied, "Well, we have sonographers."

When I asked her what a sonographer was, she was curt: "It's someone who can do your sonogram."

Actually performing a sonogram on a client probably adds to the illusion that crisis pregnancy centers are providing care. In fact, this allure explains why there's a bill pending in Congress to grant crisis pregnancy centers ultrasound machines, despite the fact that having a sonogram performed by an unsupervised technician could be dangerous. Dr. Diana Kroi, the ob-gyn who authored "Take Control of Your Period," explained that ultrasounds need a trained physician to look for problems like ectopic pregnancies and other dangerous indications that a woman's health is imperiled.

If a woman who's had an ultrasound mistakenly thinks she's had actual prenatal care, she may not go elsewhere for real care. Anti-choicers are banking on the ultrasound's appeal as a pre-born snapshot machine, though it's an actual diagnostic tool, or as the Mayo Clinic puts it, "[Ultrasound] isn't meant primarily to provide parental thrills or souvenir snapshots," and it's irresponsible to treat it as if it were. This is especially irresponsible in a setting where clients are being told that Planned Parenthood and other affordable clinics are nothing but abortion mills who want to hurt the woman and the expected baby.

So it's possible that these centers are not only detrimental to those women seeking abortions, they could be inadvertently stopping women from obtaining proper prenatal care. And from what I could gather on the website, most of the "counseling" available is for the only syndrome that crisis pregnancy centers show any interest in treating; one they call "post-abortion stress syndrome." The problem with this syndrome is anti-choice activists made it up. Unlike, say, post-natal depression, neither the American Psychiatric Association nor the American Psychological Association recognizes "post-abortion stress syndrome." So add proper mental health services to the list of services not rendered.

Because they have so little overhead, crisis pregnancy centers are proliferating while clinics offering actual medical care lag behind. NARAL Pro-Choice Texas noted that as of December 2005 that there were only 43 abortion providers in Texas compared to 183 crisis pregnancy centers -- which is unsurprising considering the cost of real medical care versus a stick to pee on and a video to watch. There's no indication as of yet that the $5 million grant to Texas Pregnancy Care Network will result in anything resembling professional medical care offered to the low-income women who need it, most of whom are punted by crisis pregnancy centers onto Medicaid, escalating the cost to the American taxpayer.

The truth is that Texas taxpayers are being asked to pony up $5 million to an organization that provides no services apart from furthering an outsider political agenda. Even the much ballyhooed "education" about alternatives to abortion isn't worth a dime of taxpayer money, even from those who would prefer fewer women to have abortions. After all, Planned Parenthood was already in the business of educating women about their options and the education offered is far more complete.

Peggy Romberg ended with a story about a young woman she'd worked with a few years back who'd been fortunate enough to get help from a college friend whose parents were friends of hers. The young woman had recently broken up with her boyfriend only to discover she was pregnant. When she contacted him for help, he instructed her to meet him at a nearby crisis pregnancy center. The ex-boyfriend had gone to a football game instead, forcing the young woman to endure the berating of the staff alone. She then went back to her dorm and despaired, running into another friend who was able to help her obtain the abortion. Without that stroke of luck, Romberg noted, there's no telling what a young woman who so far had met with nothing but abandonment, lies and berating would have done to escape her situation.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon.