A young and scared pregnant woman walks into what looks like a medical clinic seeking help. When she says that she has a scholarship to start college and doesn’t feel ready to be a parent, a staff person tells her that she’s already a mother and college can wait. When she asks about abortion, she is told that if she has one, any future pregnancy will be sad because she’ll feel like she doesn’t deserve children. They say that if she has an abortion and doesn’t tell anyone, she could die alone and no one would ever know what happened to her.
Scenarios like this play out every day in anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers all over California. In an in-depth undercover investigation of 43 such centers in 19 counties – available at www.cpclies.com – National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League Pro-Choice California’s investigators encountered all of this false and manipulative rhetoric and much more. Our research reveals that by throwing up roadblocks to legitimate medical care, these centers pose a threat to public health in California.
Californians are lucky to have some of the strongest protections for reproductive rights in the country. That hasn’t stopped opponents of reproductive freedom from finding underhanded ways to interfere with women’s health. The National Institute for Family and Life Advocates, an umbrella organization for crisis pregnancy centers, says its mission is to be “in every community across the nation in order to achieve an abortion-free America.”
Our investigation shows that 53 of California’s 58 counties are home to at least one center. In 2014, NARAL Pro-Choice America found that in 77 cities, 79 percent of Google searches using the terms “abortion clinic” resulted in at least one ad for a crisis pregnancy center. We then urged Google to remove these misleading ads because they clearly violated the search engine’s truth-in-advertising policy. More than two-thirds of these ads were removed, but pressuring each company is not a sustainable solution.
The tactics of crisis pregnancy centers to lure women are not limited to the Internet. They locate in buildings that look like health clinics, often offering services such as “abortion consultation” or “abortion counseling.” Often, they open near a clinic that offers abortion services to further confuse clients.
Once women enter a crisis pregnancy center, they face a barrage of medical misinformation from staff or volunteers who present themselves as authorities on reproductive health. Ninety-one percent of clinics our investigators visited falsely linked abortion to health problems such as breast cancer, the debunked “post-abortion stress syndrome,” infertility and even death.
When one investigator told staff she had symptoms indicating a complication in her pregnancy, she was rarely referred to a doctor. Center staffers told investigators they had ample time to make a decision about an abortion – a dangerous practice that limits a woman’s right to choose.
The opposition of crisis pregnancy centers to abortion did not translate into support for proven methods to prevent unintended pregnancy. Our investigator was falsely told that birth control is harmful to the body; the only alternatives offered were abstinence or having children in a marriage.
As if endangering women with medical misinformation wasn’t bad enough, these centers will also use shame, fear and humiliation to discourage women from exercising choice. Our investigators heard gruesome descriptions of an abortion procedure and saw gory videos. One was told that “normal people feel uncomfortable” about abortion, and was shamed for having sex before marriage and told her boyfriend might leave her if she had an abortion.
Regardless of one’s position on abortion, we can all agree that women should not be given medical misinformation. It is wrong to lie to women, especially when those lies can have serious health consequences and create barriers to receiving safe, accurate medical care in a timely fashion.
Californians need to understand the threat of crisis pregnancy centers and hold them accountable. According to the Guttmacher Institute’s latest data, nearly half of pregnancies in California are unintended. Women facing unintended pregnancies need prompt access to comprehensive information about their full range of options, including abortion.
Amy Everitt is state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California and the NARAL Pro-Choice California Foundation.