Insidious

Pro-Lifers Harass Women After Abortions

Anti-abortion groups are now masquerading as post-abortion care services, and peddling medical lies about the procedure.

07.01.15 9:25 AM ET

The abortion debate tends to focus on the time before a woman receives an abortion.

In the United States, there are over 3,500 crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs)—most of them “run by conservative Christians,” as The New York Times reports—that pressure pregnant women to either give birth or consider using an adoption agency. Anti-abortion billboards dot the interstates with Bible quotes and factoids about fetal heartbeats. Similar ads appear in city centers, often with manipulative racial messaging targeted at pregnant African-American women.

But what happens after abortion? One might think that anti-abortion organizations would give up on women once they are no longer pregnant. Not so. Anti-abortion organizations bearing an uncanny resemblance to CPCs in their approach have a sizable but lesser-known presence in the world of post-abortion counseling and support.

Despite a lack of scientific evidence, organizations like The Stacy Zallie Foundation, Abortion Changes You, Project Rachel, and several others portray abortion itself as a serious threat to women’s mental health. These organizations often posture as neutral havens for post-abortion support while explicitly directing women to anti-abortion resources, including CPCs. They may not be as numerous as their CPC counterparts, but they can be just as misleading.

If post-abortion counseling hasn’t drawn much attention, that may be because it is often unnecessary. In 2008, an American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force reviewed the scientific literature on mental health and abortion and concluded, “[T]here is no credible evidence that a single elective abortion of an unwanted pregnancy in and of itself causes mental health problems for adult women.”

Although some studies do indicate that “some women” can experience grief, depression, and anxiety after an abortion, the Task Force further clarified that “reports of associations between abortion history and mental health problems” can be “misleading” if they do not take into account “other risk factors” like poverty, violence, and drug or alcohol use. The best predictor of mental health post-abortion, the report found, is mental health pre-abortion.

But that hasn’t stopped an array of post-abortion organizations, campaigns, and websites from presenting abortion as a pressing psychological danger.

The Stacy Zallie Foundation, created by millionaire New Jersey grocer George Zallie and his late wife Linda, promises “non-judgmental post-abortion care,” but between the organization’s alarmist tone and its ties to anti-abortion organizations, it’s difficult to take that claim seriously. The Zallies created the foundation in the mid-2000s because they were “convinced” that their daughter Stacy would be alive “had [she] been better informed about what she might expect following the abortion.”

Stacy committed suicide at age 21, a year after receiving an abortion—two incidents that Zallie told local press he “knows in [his] heart” were connected.

The front page of the foundation’s website promises that it “does not operate with religious, ethical, or political agendas in mind” and yet its list of resources includes several CPCs in Pennsylvania, the same CPCs that form the frontline of the anti-abortion movement—some New York City CPCs even have the word “frontline” in their names.

These CPCs, which actually outnumber abortion providers in the U.S., are far from agenda-less.

When George Washington University Law School student Caitlin Bancroft went undercover to visit several Virginia CPCs, her counselors asked questions like “Would your parents be excited about a grandchild?” and told her that her birth control causes cancer. This all took place while she waited for the results of her free pregnancy test, one of CPCs’ most-advertised offerings. No matter what Bancroft said, the counselors always tried to steer her away from abortion.

Others have endured even more horrific experiences inside CPCs. Feminist writer Jaclyn Munson had to watch a 25-minute film detailing the rare complications of abortion before receiving the results of her pregnancy test.

The Stacy Zallie Foundation’s alignment with anti-abortion groups doesn’t end with its endorsement of CPCs. Aside from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the only phone numbers listed at the top of its front page lead to OptionLine, a CPC referral service, and Concepts of Truth International, an organization that sells copies of the exploitative documentary Life After Abortion, which features women recalling their abortions in graphic detail:

After a PR email for the Stacy Zallie Foundation went out with a list of unsubstantiated claims about “post abortion depression”—such as “45 percent of women who have had an abortion report having suicidal feelings immediately following their procedure,” no citation provided—George Zallie did not immediately respond to requests for an interview.

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If you enter your ZIP Code in the top right corner of the Stacy Zallie Foundation website, you’ll be redirected to another anti-abortion campaign masquerading as a post-abortion support service: Abortion Changes You. The “Find Help” feature on the Abortion Changes You website primarily directs users to local CPCs.

In 2010, Abortion Changes You ran a subway ad campaign in New York City with messages like: “I thought life would be the way it was before. Abortion changes you.” At the time, founder Michaelene Fredenburg told The New York Times that she wanted Abortion Changes You to be a “safe space” for women “apart from the controversy and debate.”

But her ad campaign, as the Times reports, was paid for by Vitae, an anti-abortion media organization that conducts “extensive psychological and demographic research” to fine-tune its messages. Vitae’s portfolio includes ads for CPCs in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles featuring black and Latina women, respectively.

A video for Abortion Changes You shows pictures of models with messages like “My wife gets depressed around the anniversary of our daughter’s abortion” over a mournful piano track. The music swells and shifts to a major key as screenshots of the website replace the sad stock photos.

Abortion Changes You fell quiet for some time after its subway ad campaign but, last year, Fredenburg recorded a video appearance for the National Vigil For Life in Ireland, a rally protesting Ireland’s legalization of abortion. So much for staying away from “controversy and debate.”

The Stacy Zallie Foundation also lists Rachel’s Vineyard and Project Rachel as resources, both Roman Catholic organizations. The Project Rachel website makes grim reference to “vast literature on post-abortion response,” before citing studies that have already been discredited by the APA Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion due to methodological problems (PDF).

There are even more anti-abortion groups populating the post-abortion support space, especially online, where they outnumber more legitimate options in search results.

After Abortion offers a quiz to determine if you are suffering from Post Abortion Stress Syndrome, or PASS, which is not recognized by any reputable medical association, no matter how official its acronym makes it seem. Silent No More Awareness promises to “make the public aware of the devastation abortion brings to women and men.” If you search for “abortion after-care programs” through Silent No More, you will generally receive a list of Catholic dioceses and, of course, CPCs. The list goes on.

For the minority of women who do experience long-term psychological distress after abortion, there are options for support that do not redirect to anti-abortion religious groups and CPCs.

For one, Planned Parenthood offers emotional support to women post-abortion. In a statement to The Daily Beast, Dr. Vanessa Cullins, vice president of external medical affairs, said Planned Parenthood recognizes that “women can experience a range of emotions after an abortion,” including “anger or sadness,” although “most women feel relief.”

“It’s important to remember that serious, long-term emotional problems after an abortion are as uncommon after an abortion as they are after giving birth. At Planned Parenthood, we make sure that all women have support before, during, and after an abortion. Our health center staff provide compassionate, high-quality care to our patients, which includes emotional support and resources,” Cullins said.

Organizations like Backline and the Connect & Breathe after-abortion talkline are two more affirming options.

The nonprofit Exhale is also available as an avowedly apolitical “pro-voice” resource that accepts all kinds of abortion experiences. Founded in the early 2000s by Aspen Baker, author of Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight, Exhale operates a talkline that “respects and works within your belief system” to offer emotional support. Exhale accepts referrals from both Planned Parenthood and organizations like Abortion Changes You.

“Wanting to be a welcoming place for women from all backgrounds is difficult terrain to operate in, but our main goal is always to reach and serve as many women, and men, as possible,” Baker told The Daily Beast. “We are a resource for Christian, pro-life women as well as feminist, pro-choice women, and people who are neither.”

The Stacy Zallie Foundation website lists Exhale as a partner but Baker was quick to clarify that “Exhale has no partnership with [them].”

As is the case with pre-abortion support, sources of legitimately non-judgmental post-abortion support may be harder to locate—with fewer physical and digital locations—but they do exist.