Going “Undercover” (as Myself) in a CPC

Rachel Greenberg, Policy & Legal Research Intern

This summer, my main project has been doing qualitative and quantitative research about anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). I’ve been pursuing three avenues of research — through family planning and abortion providers, through CPC clients, and through the public records of CPCs. In my attempt to understand which CPCs play the largest role in Maryland (read: see the most clients annually), I’ve been calling every CPC in this state. When volunteers pick up the phone, I plainly say, “Hi, my name is Rachel, I’m a college student doing research, I was wondering if you could tell me how many people visit this center per year”. I’ve gotten responses ranging the full spectrum of warmth — everything from suspect (“who did you say you’re with? Oh, what class are you doing this for again? Why is your area code from somewhere else?”) to friendly (“thank you for doing this work! God bless!”) to rude (“that’s confidential, no” followed by click). One woman who answered the phone was incredibly interested in and excited by my “project”. She gleefully asked me question after question about the class I’m taking and the paper I’m writing, and after a few minutes she offered to give me a tour of her center, so she could show me what they do there in person. Excited by the opportunity to see the inside of a CPC, I accepted her invitation.

When my co-intern Nora and I got to the center on that Thursday, the door was open and we walked right in. The facility looked like an old Victorian house with creaky wooden floors and floral wallpaper. The space was warm and cozy. Waiting for us in the former dining room area (later referred to as the “office”) was Caroline (pseudonyms have been used in this essay), the woman I had spoken to on the phone, with John, the head of the men’s ministry, and Shannon, another employee. We introduced ourselves and Caroline brought us into what she referred to as the “counseling room” — a small carpeted room with a few chairs and a large wooden desk cluttered with different brochures and pamphlets. After Caroline offered us water and engaged politely in some small talk, she quickly began explaining the mission of their organization.She explained then and throughout the whole conversation that her group exists to help people in crisis, to be a resource for struggling women, and to listen and be there for every individual without judgement. She discussed some of the tangible resources they provide — pregnancy tests, donations of formula, diapers, baby clothes, maternity clothes, explaining that they don’t give anything away without first talking to the woman, seeing where she’s at, understanding her situation, and talking to her about her behavior. Before anyone takes a pregnancy test there, they sit in the counseling room and talk about her situation, and Caroline assured us that the purpose of this is to understand the client’s life and give her judgement-free support that makes sense for her. She also said that they discuss the dangers of “promiscuity”, including the many problems that arise with having sex outside of marriage, and what to look for in a guy (character and stable finances were the two traits she named). It was hard to imagine the conversation feeling judgement-free.

I asked who the typical person is coming through their doors — she explained that many of their clients are homeless, in abusive situations, might have mental illness, or are otherwise struggling or in crisis. She described a few people she had seen in some horrible situations, including one woman who didn’t even know she was pregnant and had given birth in a bathroom. Nora casually mentioned a story of her cousin who had a similar experience and had given birth without knowing she was pregnant, while she was on the pill. Caroline then immediately said “we don’t talk about birth control here”. I pushed and asked what she would say if someone asked her about contraceptives, and she said seriously “we tell them the truth, which is that they’re ineffective. I’ve seen women come in who’ve gotten pregnant with their tubes tied. Because those tubes don’t want to be tied, it’s unnatural”. On the desk was a graphic breaking down the effectiveness of various types of birth control — for example, male condoms are 18% effective, according to this research (in reality it’s 85% with typical use, 98% with perfect use). She then handed us more literature — pamphlets about how STIs spread, the “truth” about abortion, etc.

Throughout the whole conversation, Caroline repeatedly used the phrase “abortion-minded” to describe women who are considering an abortion. When I asked specifically how they approach a person who might be seeking an abortion, she said off the bat that they do not refer people for abortions. She said again “we tell them the truth” about side effects. Again, I pressed her to specify the side effects, and she raised her voice, almost angrily, and said, “infection, death, hemorrhage, you name it!”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the conversation was when Nora asked Caroline how she viewed their center in terms of the pro-life movement. It caught her off guard, a little, and she explained that she doesn’t see herself or the center as political at all. “We’re just here to help the individual”.

The way I see it, every single thing that their organization does is political. Every pregnancy test, can of formula, and piece of advice they give out is political, whether they mean it to be or not, because their mission is to prevent abortion. It’s not simple, because they do have value within the community — the tangible donations they provide are incredibly helpful to parents in crisis. However, everything they give is accompanied by a conversation about expectations. Women are given pregnancy tests, but are told to stop being promiscuous. They’re given baby clothes, but they’re told they should be raising their kids a certain way. Still, if this center closed, it would be the most vulnerable women who would suffer.

That’s why the answer isn’t to start closing crisis pregnancy centers left and right. It’s about giving women all the information possible so they can make their own choices about pregnancy. That’s why the NIFLA v. Becerra ruling was so disappointing — our justice system is failing women by saying that it’s okay for these centers to lie about medical information. Health care that doesn’t involve telling women the complete truth is health care that doesn’t let them make informed decisions about their bodies and lives. And that isn’t health care at all.

Written by

The political leader of the pro-choice movement in Maryland.

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