Crisis Pregnancy Centers: Harm, Not Help
Heather Corinna replies:I heard about a really good organization that helps girls who are pregnant and don't want an abortion. It's called Birthright. I have seen one in my town, but I can't find it on your site. Do you have any information about Birthright or stuff about the way the baby is developing so that we can find out more about our options?
Birthright is one of many antichoice/pro-life organizations (like CareNet, Heartbeat International or the NIFLA) which supports a certain kind of pregnancy "help," and we would not recommend anyone go to one of the centers affiliated with them, which they help fund, or others like them; even women who know they are pregnant and intend to remain so. We don't have links to Birthright or other organizations like it both because we have a pro-choice policy here, and because we have a policy of not linking to anything which contains inaccurate or false information.
It is (and helps fund) what is called a CPC, or a Crisis Pregnancy Center.
CPCs don't usually discuss all available options for women, and grossly -- and knowingly -- usually misrepresent both abortion and pregnancy. CPCs like Birthright often use intentionally deceptive advertising in order to give the impression that women can come in for help no matter which choice they want to make: they do not advertise themselves as only for women who do not want to terminate, but commonly do quite the opposite, purposefully giving the false impression that even women considering or wanting termination may be served there with the aim of getting women who feel termination is their best choice to make another choice based on their own agenda.
Some will purposefully delay returning the results of pregnancy tests to women in order to make it harder for those who want an abortion to get one within the legal window. They will often show women images of what they claim are aborted fetuses, but which are often something else entirely (such as stillborn fetuses or miscarriages); they usually inform women of unsubstantiated risks of abortion but also don't fill them in on the actual -- and important for any pregnant woman to know, especially if she's remaining pregnant -- risks of pregnancy and delivery, risks which are 8-10 times higher than those of legal first-trimester abortion. Most misinform women about emergency contraception, and most list long-term effects of abortion which are completely false. Because most have no medical licensure, they also are not required to provide patient confidentiality the way an actual medical center or doctor's office is, which is no small deal for any woman, no matter what choice she is making. CPCs may threaten to call (and may call) the families of young women who come in and who state a desire to terminate.
What CPCs do, as their job, and those staffing them very much consider their job and their mission, is talking or tricking women out of abortions: not really serving women in any real way who are choosing to remain pregnant. Their goal is simply to keep women from having abortions, regardless of what a woman feels is her best choice and right for herself and her family.
If a woman comes to an abortion clinic saying she absolutely does not want an abortion, she'll be given referrals for prenatal care, financial assistance, and to adoption resources, if she wants them. No one is going to pull her inside and try to talk her into making a different choice than the one she states she wants to make. If a woman shows up at a CPC and says she absolutely WANTS an abortion, the staff will do everything they possibly can to try and get her to make a different choice, including prayer and knowingly manipulative information.
As mentioned in the link just below, The Pearson Foundation has a publication called "How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center." That book outlines, in detail, how CPCs should use misleading names that make them sound like abortion clinics, ways to present the appearance of providing abortions, and how to do what they can to hide their pro-life/antichoice positions. For example, the manual suggests answering the question, when a woman calls in, "Are you a pro-life center?" with "We are a pregnancy testing center. What is pro-life?" It is, quite literally, a manual on how to purposefully mislead women and how to be a fraud.
Here is a very good, balanced student-written article on CPCs. I have also provided a link to an extensive report on CPCs from State Representative Henry Waxman below, but to give you a taste of what he found:87 percent of CPCs reached in the investigation provided misleading, medically inaccurate information about abortion. CPCs often withhold essential, medically accurate reproductive health information from women who are led to believe that they are visiting a neutral and objective medical facility. Despite the fact that the women who come to them are clearly sexually active and at risk for unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection, CPCs lecture them about abstinence instead of explaining contraception, if they provide any sexual health information at all.
When I was 17, still in high school, I missed my period and my sister recommended what she thought was a clinic, because it had a sign for a free pregnancy test and was called ‘Birthright.’ In the front hallway there was a statue of the Virgin Mary. I went with a friend, but the two counselors separated us. They had me pee in a cup and then one said that she had to talk to me separately in her office. The counselor asked me about my sexual activity, about why I thought I was pregnant, then asked if I believed in God, and what I planned to do if I was pregnant. I responded that I was Christian, my father was a minister, and that I would have an abortion. ‘What do you think that God will think of that?’ the counselor asked. I responded that I believed in a forgiving God who would want me to go to college. The counselor argued that God thinks that an abortion is murder and then showed me pictures of fetuses.”
Pregnant women -- or women who suspect they may be pregnant -- can get accurate, truthful and compassionate advice -- help no matter WHAT choice they want to make, and in considering their options to determine which is the right choice for them, not by anyone else's standards -- through their general physician, gynecologist and/or through family planning clinics. Abortion clinics -- which are staffed with real medical professionals -- also usually provide options counseling for women who want to discuss all their options. I assure you, no abortion clinic wants a woman to have an abortion who is not sure that is what she wants, and all take many steps to BE sure that is truly what a woman wants, even when she has come in expressly for an abortion procedure. If and when a woman comes to an abortion clinic and clearly is not sure she wants an abortion, the general procedure is to make clear to her that she then cannot be given an abortion that day, and only if she changes her mind and DOES want one should she return. A CPC does not operate that way: they feel only one choice -- remaining pregnant -- is acceptable, and if a woman who comes to one is not sure if she wants to remain pregnant (or comes in thinking, based on their deceptions, she can obtain an abortion there and wanting one), they will employ all sorts of methods to convince her to do otherwise, based on what they want, not that woman. So, while you can get accurate, unbiased counseling on ALL your options even at an abortion clinic: you cannot at a CPC.
In addition, the most CPCs can usually offer pregnant women medically is a pregnancy test, the kind any woman can buy at a drugstore for herself. Most of what they offer is simply anti-abortion propaganda. There are rarely real medical staff at these centers, and they can't often provide things like needed sonograms or prenatal care. (Because ultrasound technology is only supposed to be used as a diagnostic tool by medical providers, and CPCs don't provide actual medical services, few of them have ultrasounds or provide them, and for the most part, they aren't supposed to be using them when it comes to ultrasounds and medical/legal policies.) For women who go in and discover they are not pregnant, they also cannot offer birth control, and most CPCs oppose birth control outright. Plenty of CPCs fraudulently advertise that they CAN provide these kinds of services even when they cannot just to lure women in.
Many CPCs have violated state laws or had fraud charges filed against them for these reasons and more. CPCs like Birthright are not an appropriate place to go for prenatal care, and in some respects, can even endanger women's health, particularly those which promise medical care fraudulently they know they cannot and do not provide. When a pregnant woman needs medical care, a delay in that care can create health risks for her and her pregnancy.
No matter WHAT reproductive choice women are going to make -- or even what choices they are personally opposed to -- they need bonafide, accurate information that is not intended to influence them emotionally, and they need real medical care. Even a woman who is pregnant, who knows she intended to sustain her pregnancy, and who is against abortion is not helped by inaccurate information or a lack of real medical care. And I think we can agree that it's really insensitive and inappropriate to show a newly-pregnant woman bloody propagandist images of stillborns. How is that helpful?
We don't get much into embryonic and fetal development here at Scarleteen because it's a bit outside our scope -- most of our users are trying to avoid/prevent pregnancy -- and fetal development is usually only an issue for women who are pregnant and who have decided to continue their pregnancies. Certainly, when a woman who is pregnant and asking about abortion asks about fetal development, we talk about stages of development with her truthfully and refer her to good additional resources. We also counsel pregnant women asking for help in making a reproductive choice based on their questions, and they don't tend to ask about development, save when they are well into a pregnancy, intend to remain pregnant, and are either just curious or asking about prenatal health. Since it's best a pregnant woman directs these kinds of questions to her healthcare provider (who she will need to see: a CPC cannot provide important pre-natal healthcare), that is who we will generally refer her to if she is asking about prenatal issues in-depth.
There are a lot of resources for pregnant women on the internet about pregnancy, embryonic and fetal development and growth (and I'll give you some links to a few of those below). Because that need is so widely and well served elsewhere, there's just no reason for us to invest a lot of time and energy in that arena here. In my book, I do, in my extensive chapter on reproductive choices, outline the basic processes for all three choices, which for continuing a pregnancy, includes information on a developing pregnancy and childbirth.
For women who are certain they want to continue a pregnancy, the right place to go first is to a doctor, OB/GYN or general public health clinic. Besides telling you what you need to know about what to expect during a pregnancy, and how to take care of yourself, they can also talk in-depth with you about fetal development and help direct you towards any resources you may need in terms of financial or other practical assistance.
Once you know you are pregnant and know you intend to bring a pregnancy to term, going to a medical professional -- such as your family doctor or your gynecologist -- or a real medical clinic is the best first step, for both your health and that of your developing fetus.
So, that is where we would advise you -- and advise other pregnant women who want to remain pregnant -- to go to find out about fetal development and pre-natal care. We don't suggest CPCs not only because they simply rarely provide that, nor just because we don't send our users to any source we know to be medically inaccurate. We also do not endorse CPCs because any business in the practice of fraud, misleading or tricking women, and not honoring a woman's right to choose for herself what is right for her is not in line with our ethics when it comes to understanding that it is not our right, or anyone else's, to do anything but respect an individual's own right to choice and the right to factual reproductive health information. For more on why we feel that way, see here.
Here are a few more links and articles for you on CPCs:
- At Legal Momentum: Advancing Women's Rights
- Time Magazine, February, 2007
- From the Feminist Women's Health Center
The FWHC offers this sound advice on how to find a reliable, bonafide clinic, no matter what choice a woman is making:
• Select clinics that provide the full range of contraceptive alternatives.
• Ask on the phone if they provide or refer for abortion services. Avoid centers that refuse to give a straightforward answer.
• Do not use the ones listed in yellow pages under Abortion Alternatives.
• Be cautious when surfing the web. Often you will find anti-abortion religious-based websites disguised as pro-choice information. Keep searching for reliable information.
• Select clinics that have clearly established reputations. Avoid centers with ambiguous descriptions. Avoid clinics whose staff do not provide full, clear answers regarding their services. Ask friends or relatives you trust!
And here are some excellent online resources about the process of pregnancy, embryonic and fetal development:
If you or someone you know are looking for information about practical or financial assistance for a pregnancy, or general information about and help with considering all your options, have a look at Choice Linkup or at some resources from Backline here. Backline also has a toll-free hotline for options counseling and other help with unplanned pregnancy at: (888) 493-0092.
If you're in the United States and are looking expressly for practical/financial help, here in the government's page for WIC, the programs available to help low-income women, infants and children, including pregnant women. Lastly, we have long loved Girl-Mom.com for all kinds of support for teen mothers, from other young Moms.
Obviously, you have the right to think whatever opinion you have CPCs, but I'd encourage you to do some of this reading to make up your mind informedly. I'd also encourage you, if advising other women who are pregnant and in need of help, to direct them to services which DO provide the kind of real help they need, without bias or any agenda other than making sure that they are able to be assisted in taking the best care of themselves, no matter their choice. If we can't trust women to make sound choices for themselves, we can't very well trust women to be parents, and make sound choices for their children, either.