The Deception Behind Crisis Pregnancy Centers

by Shay Upadhyay

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Before joining the intern team at the NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland Fund, I had no idea how deceptive crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) could be. CPCs are often masked behind the word “clinic” to give the impression that they are authorized to provide legitimate medical services and advice. In reality, most CPCs are nonprofit organizations with the primary mission to dissuade people from having abortions and certain forms of contraceptives. As the vast majority of these centers are not legitimate healthcare facilities, CPCs are exempt from the regulatory, licensure, and credentialing oversight that applies to real health care facilities. There is no exchange of money for services, so consumer protection laws and regulations do not apply. Since CPCs do so much work to present themselves as legitimate healthcare facilities, how can you spot a CPC?

Advertising Tactics

CPCs prioritize their own agendas over patients’ needs. They use deceptive advertising tactics to appear open to all options for pregnancy, including abortion. CPCs do not offer services related to abortion care at all.

Billboards: One of the most common tactics used by CPCs is advertising on billboards. CPCs often advertise on billboards with the tagline, “Pregnant and alone?” or “Pregnant and need help?” to get people to call their phone number. CPCs advertise a range of services, including “abortion counseling” and “abortion services,” to appear as if they offer comprehensive abortion care. In reality, the only abortion-related “service” they provide is anti-abortion propaganda. CPCs often employ strategies to place billboards in certain communities they are targeting, in areas where there are very few or no legitimate family planning providers, and along bus and commuter train routes to the CPC sites.

Free Pregnancy Tests: Most health care facilities charge patients for a pregnancy test, so CPCs lure people into their facility by offering free pregnancy tests, and some may offer free ultrasounds. When they get people through the door, representatives often engage in emotional manipulation tactics to dissuade clients from having an abortion. Examples of this include showing graphic videos, bringing out baby items, or using terms such as “baby” and “killing” when referring to the fetus and abortion. Some CPCs will promise an ultrasound after a positive pregnancy test, but then schedule and reschedule follow-up appointments to obtain an ultrasound to delay the pregnant person’s decision-making.

Locations of CPCs: Not only are many CPCs strategically located near abortion clinics, but they also have names that are similar to nearby abortion clinics, such as “Choices Pregnancy and Health” or “Women’s Care Center.” This tactic is used so that people mistakenly seek care at the CPC rather than at the intended clinic. If you are going to an abortion clinic, be sure to double-check the name and address to confirm that it is a legitimate abortion clinic, be clear about where to park, and what you need to know about any potential challenges in entering the clinic.

Emotional Manipulation Tactics

It is not easy to get CPCs to admit they are anti-choice over the phone. They want to bring people into the clinic so they often reiterate the range of services they “offer” and remind you that they are there to give unbiased advice. However, once a pregnant person visits the clinic, CPCs engage in emotional manipulation tactics.

Emotional Manipulation: Emotional manipulation tactics at CPCs include calling a pregnant person “mommy” and referring to the fetus as “the baby.” Often, CPCs will have some kind of “counselor” available for pregnant individuals. It is common for these counselors to pray for the baby and convince the pregnant person that they are making the wrong choice by seeking an abortion. Among those that offer free ultrasounds, CPCs make patients watch their ultrasounds as they plead with or pressure them into continuing a pregnancy they do not want. Some CPCs will even write things like “Hi Mommy” on the ultrasound print out. There has been much speculation as to whether the ultrasound record or photo shown to the pregnant person is truly the resulting image of a functional and calibrated ultrasound machine. CPCs will disperse gift bags full of baby clothes, diapers, and toys, even if the pregnant person has made it clear that they are not interested in continuing their pregnancy. A common tactic used by CPCs is to show clients a doll of what a fetus looks like, even though the age of the doll is inaccurate compared to the age of the fetus. CPCs love to employ the narrative that most people regret having an abortion. However, according to a landmark University of California San Francisco study, over 95 percent of the women said having an abortion remained the right decision for them five years after having the abortion.

Crisis Pregnancy Centers Disguised as Medical Clinics: The majority of CPCs are not licensed medical clinics, but information centers with staff and volunteers posing as medical professionals, as well as examining rooms and other medical office features. Since they do not operate as legitimate medical clinics, CPCs cannot legally be held to the privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This can lead to violations of client privacy, as these centers can share client information outside of the fake “clinic.” In their “intake” with a “patient,” some CPCs will require visitors to complete paperwork resembling HIPAA as a deception tactic. On Yelp, many CPCs in Maryland are categorized under “Health and Medical,” even though they are not legitimate medical clinics.

Post Abortion Stress Syndrome (PASS): CPCs often try to convince clients that people who have abortions will suffer from “Post Abortion Stress Syndrome (PASS).” While some people may experience grief or physical symptoms after receiving abortion care, PASS does not exist. The American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Public Health Association have refuted the existence of PASS.

Free Pregnancy Tests and Ultrasounds

By offering clients free pregnancy tests, crisis pregnancy centers are given control of providing the client information about their pregnancy.

Falsifying Information about a Pregnancy: Crisis pregnancy centers manipulate clients into thinking that they are (1) further along than they are or (2) have plenty of time to make a decision. When clients are misled into thinking they have time to make a decision, they could postpone a potential abortion later into one’s pregnancy than expected. The longer a pregnant person waits to have an abortion, the more logistically complicated and expensive it can be over time. CPCs have been known to show graphic videos of “botched abortions” as part of their “counseling” sessions to manipulate pregnant people into thinking that a traumatic or dangerous medical event will happen to them if they seek abortion care.

Fake Ultrasounds: CPCs often offer clients “free” ultrasounds. As these are not legitimate medical clinics, CPCs do not need to provide clients an accurate ultrasound result. Ultrasound machines can be purchased by anyone, as there is no requirement for the equipment to be used only for medical purposes, and there is no certification requirement for someone to use such a machine. Many centers give clients doctored ultrasounds, or fake pictures, to convince clients that they are at a different point in their pregnancy, thus influencing their decision about an abortion.

Religious Affiliation

Most CPCs have some sort of religious affiliation, advertising themselves as “faith-based pregnancy resource centers.” Many people who go to CPCs looking for resources do not know that they are religiously affiliated. CPCs tend to hide their religious affiliation in their public advertisements but their clinics are almost always filled with religious materials. But to be fair, many visiting CPCs are aware of their religious nature, and often the centers are known in local communities to support those wishing to carry to term.

Anti-Choice Umbrella Organizations: Many crisis pregnancy centers are supported by one of three major umbrella organizations: the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), Care Net, and Heartbeat International. These organizations are staunchly anti-choice.

Upholding Christian Values: To volunteer at certain crisis pregnancy centers, you must identify as a Christian. Volunteer applications often have questions such as “Do you consider yourself a Christian?” and “As a Christian, what is the basis of your salvation?” Other organizations ask “Are you now living a lifestyle of sexual integrity, abstinent if single or faithful within marriage?” and “Have you ever had an abortion?” Volunteer applicants at crisis pregnancy centers often must pledge to be against abortion, contraception, and, in many cases, premarital sex.

Access to Public Funding: Some crisis pregnancy centers are eligible to receive federal funding and other forms of government support due to having a nonprofit organization status. In some states, CPCs also receive local and state public funding. Advocates in the reproductive rights movement strongly argue against and have stopped public funding of CPCs due to their deceptive practices in the stance that public funding should support legitimate medical care providers offering comprehensive and evidence-based healthcare.

If you’re interested in learning more about crisis pregnancy centers, we have had previous interns visit crisis pregnancy centers and abortion clinics in Maryland who have shared their experiences in similar blogs. For a more in-depth look at the type of deceptive practices of CPCs, check out the NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland Fund’s 2018 Investigative Report.

Sources

AMA J Ethics. 2018;20(3):269–277. DOI: 10.1001/journalofethics.2018.20.3.pfor1–1803.

Corinne H. Rocca, Goleen Samari, Diana G. Foster, Heather Gould, Katrina Kimport,

Emotions and decision rightness over five years following an abortion: An examination of decision difficulty and abortion stigma, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 248, 2020, 112704, ISSN 0277–9536, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112704. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953619306999)

NARAL Pro-Choice America. Crisis “Pregnancy Centers Lie: The Insidious Threat to Reproductive Freedom”, 2015, https://www.prochoiceamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/cpc-report-2015.pdf, accessed May 10, 2021.

NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland Fund. “Will the Deception Ever End? An investigative report of anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers in Maryland, May 2018.https://prochoicemd.org/issues/crisis-pregnancy-centers-2/

Rosen, Joanne D. The Guttmacher Institute, 2012, The Public Health Risks of Crisis Pregnancy Centers, www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/article_files/4420112.pdf.

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

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