Crisis Pregnancy Centers Mislead Women; New Laws Fight Back

From deceptive advertising to flat-out lies, “crisis pregnancy centers” prey on desperate young women looking for help. Joyce C. Tang on new laws across the country fighting back.

When 21-year old Amy found out she was pregnant, she was torn between knowing she couldn't support both herself and a child, and her religious beliefs, which taught that abortion was wrong. Unsure about what to do but leaning toward an abortion, Amy (not her real name) scoured the Internet for abortion services. She came upon the Arlington Pregnancy Center near her Texas home, which advertised help for unplanned pregnancies, counseling on abortion, and, most importantly, free services.

The financial relief “was one of the things that drew me in,” said Amy, a college student.

Click Below to View Crisis Pregnancy Center Ads That Mislead Women

After arriving at the center and telling the counselor she was considering an abortion but interested in hearing about other options, Amy was left alone in a room to watch a video. For the next 20 minutes, she listened to a list of false and misleading information: that fetuses at four weeks old already have a heartbeat and developed fingers, that 50 percent of women who abort get breast cancer, and that 30 percent of women who get abortions die within the first year due to complications. In the video, a rape victim discussed how she could forgive her rapist before she could forgive herself for having an abortion.

Later, in a last-ditch attempt to stop her from terminating her pregnancy, Amy’s pregnancy counselor tried to reach her at her boyfriend’s home, whose number Amy had given to the center. Her boyfriend’s mother, who happened to be visiting, answered the phone, and when she asked what the center was calling about, the woman from the center disclosed Amy’s intent to get an abortion.

The facility Amy visited is known as a crisis pregnancy center. CPCs have long operated under the guise of reproductive health care, but in reality function as an arm of the antiabortion rights movement. With neutral names like the Center for Pregnancy Concerns and the Pregnancy Care Center, CPCs typically promise free services to young women panicking in the wake of an unexpected pregnancy. In many cities, they advertise on public transit. A typical ad lists a phone number and reads, “Had sex? Have questions? Pregnant? Need help? You are not alone. We are here for you.”

But rather than help and objective counseling, Amy was bullied. She was accused of “not [being] a true Christian,” despite the fact that she attends church regularly, and was told “if I continued down this path I was going to hell.” She wasn’t allowed to leave until she had made an appointment to come back for an ultrasound.

“If I knew they wouldn’t provide abortions, I definitely would never have gone there,” Amy said.

Typically funded by conservative evangelical and Catholic religious groups, CPCs actively lobby women against abortion and even birth control. In a form of emotional manipulation, CPCs often encourage "abortion-minded" clients to undergo ultrasounds in the hope that seeing the fetus will create an emotional attachment to it and dissuade a woman from abortion. A 2006 Congressional investigation by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) found that 20 of 23 CPCs gave women false medical information, such as telling them that abortion increases the incidence of breast cancer, suicide, and fertility problems.

Until recently, CPCs have been largely unregulated, even though they are eligible for federal abstinence-only funding. But in November, the city of Baltimore, influenced by lobbying from Maryland’s NARAL and Planned Parenthood chapters, enacted a disclosure law requiring limited-service pregnancy centers to post signage if they don’t provide or refer for abortion or birth control.

Since November, other locales have followed Baltimore’s example. Montgomery County, Maryland, passed a similar ordinance in February, and Austin, Texas, pushed through a bill in April. In Congress, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) recently re-introduced the Stop Deceptive Advertising Women’s Services Act, and campaigns in California and Oregon plan to target lawmakers at the municipal level in 2011.

At one CPC technicians tap out “messages” from unborn babies (“hi mommy and daddy”) as they perform ultrasounds.

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It’s not uncommon for young women to stumble upon CPCs, which often list themselves under “abortion services” or “abortion clinics.” NARAL Pro-Choice America, which discovered more than 100 centers in 25 states advertising under such a guise, is crusading to get those centers delisted from online directories.

The 800 comprehensive clinics providing abortion in the United States are vastly outnumbered by the approximately 4,000 crisis pregnancy centers. But the recent movement to stop CPCs’ deceptive advertising is giving pro-choice organizations hope that they may be finding their way out of what had long seemed like a losing, or at the very least dormant, battle.

“Local government taking action is something new,” said Ted Miller, communications director of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “It was a great step forward to have a city like Baltimore pass that kind of an ordinance.”

Pro-choice groups have been investigating CPCs for years and attempting to regulate them at the state level, but finding support on that level has been “challenging,” said Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California. Between 2004 and 2010, seven states considered legislation related to CPCs, but none passed.

Unsurprisingly, antiabortion groups are fighting back now that localities are taking action against CPCs. The Baltimore and Montgomery County laws are already being challenged. In March, the archbishop of Baltimore and the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns filed a lawsuit against the city, which is still pending, claiming that the recently passed ordinance violates First Amendment protections and disregards legitimate services provided at CPCs.

Thomas Schetelich, chairman of the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, objects to the fact that his facilities were required to post signs, in English and Spanish, explicitly stating that “we don’t provide or refer for birth control, which is not true because we do—we deal with abstinence and natural family planning.” In addition, Schetelich said the centers also provide pregnant women with food, clothing, baby formula, diapers, toys, parenting skills, and Bible study, all for free. “I frankly would have hoped that Baltimore City Council would be more appreciative of the enormous volunteer efforts that were made for the poor of the city,” Schetelich said.

Though not all CPCs engage in deceptive and manipulative practices, Amy’s experience isn't an anomaly. In the upcoming documentary 12th & Delaware, airing Aug. 2 on HBO, filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing lead cameras into a Florida CPC located directly across the street from an abortion clinic. The CPC in the film plied typically poor and minority women with offers of free food (one woman is given a McDonald’s meal while she waits), free ultrasounds in which technicians tap out “messages” from unborn babies (“Hi mommy and daddy”), and lies about the probable timing of conception so women miss their window of opportunity to get an abortion.

A few weeks ago, at six and a half weeks pregnant, Amy walked past protesters waving religious pamphlets and calling her a murderer. She went into a reproductive health clinic and got an abortion. “I never thought I’d be in a position where I’d get an abortion,” Amy said. “I was finding myself against my religion.”

“But,” she continued, “a woman has a right.”

Joyce Tang is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Double X, and The Miami Herald.