Manipulation, Lies, and Crisis Pregnancy Centers

by Lucy Font, accompanying Jenny Torres

On Saturday, November 9, I visited a Baltimore-based Crisis Pregnancy Center, posing as the concerned friend of a young woman with a pregnancy crisis. Crisis Pregnancy Centers are anti-choice non-profit organizations established to dissuade women from seeking abortion care. Their tactics include posing as a legitimate medical clinic, dissemination of misinformation, fear-mongering, and utilization of anti-choice rhetoric.

I called Woman’s Center West on Friday, November 8, and told the woman on the other end of the line that a friend of mine, Jenny, took a positive pregnancy test, was “freaking out,” and wanted to know her options. I specified that she wanted to learn about “adoption and abortion” — the woman on the line scheduled an appointment for us the next morning at 10:00.

When we entered the clinic, there were 5 to 7 people clustered in the waiting room. We were ushered into a back room to fill out paperwork, and a woman apologized and explained that we’d walked into a clinic meeting. She handed a clipboard to Jenny and asked her to fill out some paperwork. She left us in the room, door wide open. The atmosphere was unprofessional, to say the least; a client in crisis should never have to walk into a small space crowded with strangers and then be left alone in a room with the door open.

While Jenny filled out the paperwork, which asked identifying information as well as personal questions about her sexual history and menstrual cycle, I observed the space. There were models of fetuses inside uteri, with detailed hands, feet, and facial features. The walls had posters, the most notable of which was a large “Sexual Exposure Chart.” It claimed that the number of people you are sexually exposed to includes your previous partners, all of their partners, your current partner, and your current partner’s previous partners. There is no scientific basis for such a claim. I found a visual of the chart on a Pro-Life book retail website:

Image for post
Image for post
This image is found in crisis pregnancy centers all over the country. They imply that one individual is “sexually exposed” to thousands of people simply by having sex with one other person. It’s a tactic of abstinence-only education and used for sex-shaming. (Copyright 2004 Why kNOw Abstinence Education Programs)

Other notable office décor included a basket of thumb-sized rubber babies, presumably to distribute to women considering abortion, as well as a plethora of brochures, most of which contained blatant medical inaccuracies. For example, a booklet titled “The Truth About Emergency Contraception” asserted that the morning-after pill is an abortifacient, which is patently untrue. Another brochure called “Don’t Panic! How to Tell Your Parents You’re Pregnant” was designed to persuade teenagers to keep their unwanted pregnancies by seeking financial and emotional support from their parents. There was a crucifix on the wall, as well as a flyer for the Pro-Life Pilgrimage to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine.

After Jenny did her paperwork, a woman, Ann*, came in to get Jenny and lead her to the bathroom, where she told Jenny to get a urine sample for the pregnancy test. We had access to pregnancy urine, which Jenny pretended was her own.

About five minutes later, three women entered the room and shut the door. They had to bring in extra chairs, and the small space felt overcrowded. Ann introduced herself as a counselor, one introduced herself as a nurse, and the third sat quietly for most of the “counseling session” but eventually disclosed that she was a “counselor-in-training.”

The session began with Ann telling Jenny that her urine test came back positive, and immediately gave her a due date: June 30. Jenny estimated that she was six weeks pregnant. Ann continued by asking Jenny questions about the date of her last period, her relationship to the “baby’s father,” and her history of birth control use. When she asked Jenny if she had an intrauterine device (IUD), I jumped in, asking, “Are IUDs bad?” “Nurse” Joan*, informed me that what most women do not know about IUDs is that they often cause miscarriages, and as someone with an IUD, I should “keep an eye” on my menstrual flow to make sure I do not miscarry a child. This is misinformation.

When it came time to “counsel” Jenny on her options, Ann pushed adoption, saying that it was safe and that she could refer Jenny to a reputable agency. They moved quickly to discussing abortion care. Joan informed Jenny that she had two options for abortion care: medication abortion and surgical abortion. She showed Jenny a plastic model of a uterus with a small, yet detailed, model of a fetus inside. Referring to the fetus as Jenny’s “little one”, Joan explained that medication abortion would dissolve the amniotic sac, thus “starving” the fetus until it dies.

When describing surgical abortion, Joan explained that the process of removing the fetal tissue makes loud “vacuum sounds”, and that the doctors will then need to remove the remaining tissue, which consists of “little hands [and] arms”. I jumped in to ask, in a mock surprised tone, “I thought she was only six weeks pregnant. Does the fetus already have arms and hands?” Joan replied affirmatively and added that it already had a heartbeat as well.

Joan’s word choice was no accident. Referring to a 6-week, developing fetus as a “little one” or a “baby” combined with rhetoric such as “starve,” “vacuum sounds,” and “little hands and arms” is not only medically inaccurate but also incredibly manipulative. A pregnant person cannot make an informed choice about their reproductive healthcare based on misleading, incomplete, and false information about fetal development.

Both Ann and Joan informed Jenny that if she did decide to have an abortion, she needed to research associated medical risks and complications. They mentioned excessive bleeding many times when describing abortion procedures. The women also claimed that they do not refer to abortion providers because they do not want to be liable if there are medical complications.

Abortion is not a dangerous medical procedure; in fact, it is much safer than carrying a pregnancy to term. A committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine indicates that abortion is a safe and effective medical procedure. Further, a 2012 study by the National Institute of Health found that the pregnancy-related mortality rate was 8.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to 0.6 deaths per 100,000 abortions. In a comparative study of pregnancy morbidity in the United States, pregnancy-related complications were more common with childbirth than with abortions (1).

Joan and Ann also encouraged Jenny to have an ultrasound. Joan said that because abortion providers are “businesses”, they perform abortions even if the pregnant person has already miscarried the child; thus, it was necessary to have an ultrasound before seeking abortion care. This is false. Routine ultrasounds are not medically necessary for first-trimester abortion care (2). Additionally, abortion providers do not perform abortions on people that are not pregnant. The Crisis Pregnancy Center’s motive for pushing an unwanted and medically unnecessary ultrasound is to personify the fetus and encourage the pregnant person to develop a connection with their “child”.

When Jenny asked if the abortion clinic would provide an ultrasound, Joan contradicted her earlier claim about abortion providers, claiming that while abortion clinics do provide ultrasounds, they are expensive. She encouraged Jenny to come back to the center later in her pregnancy to have a free ultrasound. Again, the center’s motive is to use an ultrasound image of the uterus to attempt to produce an emotional attachment between a pregnant person and the fetus.

Later, Joan said that people that have abortions always experience regret and emotional pain. She claimed that some people remember the birthdays of the “little one” for years after the abortion procedure. She even said she’s met “ladies that had abortions over 30 years ago [and] still think about it”. Joan and Ann also told Jenny that if she did choose to have an abortion, she should come back to the center for emotional counseling. Contrarily, studies indicate that although each patient feels differently, the most common feeling after abortion is relief (3, 4). In most cases, abortion is not emotionally traumatic, and describing it as such contributes to the stigmatization of a safe and common medical procedure.

Finally, Joan asked Jenny what her plans were going to be moving forward so that she will not be in a crisis pregnancy situation again. Jenny asked her what birth control options she recommends. Joan said that she does not recommend any form of birth control. She said that because none of them are 100% effective, she couldn’t recommend any. She also added that hormonal birth control, such as the birth control pill, has too many negative side effects. Joan used an IUD as an example, saying that many people experience excessive bleeding when they get an IUD.

“Is that common?” asked Jenny.

“Yes, very common,” replied Joan. Another lie.

According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, the IUD has a failure rate of less than 1 per 100 women in the first year of use. Additionally, it found that the copper IUD is very safe, with a low number of adverse events associated with its use. While excessive bleeding can be a side effect of IUD insertion, Joan’s description of “very common” bleeding was a gross mischaracterization of IUD use as dangerous, unpleasant, and ineffective (5).

Lastly, Joan turned to me. She asked me what I would do if I were in Jenny’s situation. I declined to answer. Then she asked, “If she had a baby, would you support her?” I responded that I would support her no matter what decision she made. Joan then asked Jenny if she spoke Spanish, and when she answered affirmatively, Joan started to talk to her in Spanish. She told Jenny that her parents would be happy when she told them she was pregnant, and that once the due date came, and she saw her baby, everything would be easy.

It became more evident throughout the “counseling session” that the center’s goal was not to blatantly condemn abortion, nor was it to resort to zealous tirades, as one might expect in a clinic with clear religious motivations. Instead, their tactics are much more insidious: they masquerade as a legitimate medical practice, present abortion as a viable option, and then disseminate dangerous, stigmatizing misinformation about the procedure. This fear-mongering is an appalling barrier to the realization of reproductive justice.

*Names of clinic employees have been replaced with pseudonyms.

Are you or a friend interested in sharing your experience at a Crisis Pregnancy Center? These fake clinics are serious barriers to real health care, and it’s time they become exposed. If you’d like to be involved in a series of testimonies and interviews (anonymously or not), please reach out to us at info@prochoicemd.org.

References

  1. Raymond, Elizabeth G., and David A. Grimes. “The Comparative Safety of Legal Induced Abortion and Childbirth in the United States.” Obstetrics & Gynecology, vol. 119, no. 2, Part 1, 2012, pp. 215–219., doi:10.1097/aog.0b013e31823fe923.
  2. “Requirements for Ultrasound.” Guttmacher Institute, 3 Dec. 2019, www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/requirements-ultrasound.
  3. “Emotional and Mental Health After Abortion.” Guttmacher Institute, 11 Apr. 2018, www.guttmacher.org/perspectives50/emotional-and-mental-health-after-abortion.
  4. Rocca CH, Kimport K, Roberts SCM, Gould H, Neuhaus J, Foster DG (2015) Decision Rightness and Emotional Responses to Abortion in the United States: A Longitudinal Study. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0128832. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0128832
  5. Kaneshiro, Bliss Bliss. “Long-Term Safety, Efficacy, and Patient Acceptability of the Intrauterine Copper T-380A Contraceptive Device.” International Journal of Women’s Health, 2010, p. 211., doi:10.2147/ijwh.s6914.

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

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