A Correction, an Apology and a Hard Object Lesson on CPCs

In an advice answer on Crisis Pregnancy Centers here at Scarleteen, and also reprinted for my column at RH Reality Check, I originally included a link to a hotline -- the American Pregnancy Helpline -- as one option for women looking for support with a pregnancy they wanted to sustain rather going than to a CPC.

I unfortunately, and very unintentionally, proved my own point in the piece too well.

The point is how easy it can be to be fooled by CPCs, even when you're pretty savvy, aware of practices CPCs typically employ and even when you're writing an article in protest of them. I -- and others -- appear to have been duped into thinking a site and organization was respectful of women's right to choose, when, in fact, it was itself a CPC and a funnel to other CPCs.

I gave the link because when women choosing to continue a pregnancy are seeking help, they deserve to find it, and I thought some might be found there. I -- as I made clear in that article -- would never want to send a woman to any kind of biased, misleading or antichoice business/organization for any reason, particularly since aid is available from unbiased sources who support and respect all women and all our choices, and I cannot apologize enough for the fact that I seem to have, albeit accidentally, done just that.

I hope my readers understand that it was a sincere error on my part for which I take full responsibility. I have a commentator at RH Reality Check, where the article was reprinted -- Parker Dockray, the Executive Director for the California Coalition for Reproductive Freedom -- to thank for a keen spidey-sense in noticing some things on the site which I had unfortunately overlooked. I emailed the site immediately asking a few basic questions about their stance and background early but have yet to get any response.

The site for the helpline appeared to present itself as supportive of all pregnancy options and did not seem to be noticeably antichoice. I did not find warnings about it anywhere and found several sites I know to be reputable and fully supportive of women and choice linking to it.

Hidden Alliances & Agendas

It may be a bit extreme to suggest checking every single page of every site and any affiliated sites and investigating everyone's background on a site when doing so when outlinking, but if I had initially done so, I first would have found that the site -- though it didn't say so -- was directly affiliated with a much larger site, the American Pregnancy Association: one linked to even by organizations like the National Abortion Federation, the blog of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the ARHP, WebMD, RAINN, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and MedlinePlus, who likely also were themselves unaware of what appears to be going on behind the scenes.* And once I found that connection, I would have found a whole lot more.

Which, once I started digging in, I certainly did.

In a day and night of intensive excavating, I discovered that both the American Pregnancy Helpline and the American Pregnancy Association and their founders have no record at all of being supportive of all reproductive options -- quite the contrary -- and that their organization began as a CPC. I found some misleading or medically incorrect information on both sites, such as references to "partial-birth abortion," and the suggestion that future fertility or breast cancer has anything at all to do with abortion. I found that the helpline and the APA both are widely linked in CPC and pro-life directories. I noticed a strange absence of any information on contraception at the site for teens, but a bunch of links to this at the APA site.

The American Pregnancy Helpline, which also calls itself America's Pregnancy Helpline -- only recently has been geared to teens. It seems to have substantially changed its appearance since it grew, as an organization, into the APA. (In looking though it more today, I was also struck by how closely it resembled Planned Parenthood's Teenwire in style, a style established well before the helpline's most recent design.) The web archive shows them to have founded the website years back as a textbook CPC. It was at that time called America's Crisis Pregnancy Helpline, and didn't then appear to claim any sort of medical accuracy or affiliation, nor any alliance with the reproductive health community. It also, to its credit, used to say on the organization's information page that it does not provide referrals to abortion services (though a debit to that credit, since the claim was that that was due to "a policy in accordance with the ones held by numerous social service organizations whereby it does not provide direct referrals to abortion providers" when such a policy is hardly common nor a requirement): it no longer makes that statement anywhere on the current site. This same organization later began the American Pregnancy Association in 2003, which appears to share a call center.

This page from 1999 shows a clear bias -- note that the questions about finances, "long-term physical and emotional effects," knowledge of procedures, pressuring, changing one's mind or "looking down on" women are not asked about the other two options. In fact, considering how much of a lifelong endeavor parenting is, it's pretty strange that no questions on that options page were posed at ALL about readiness, wantedness or ability to parent. All that was given was a list of what extra help social service organizations may be able to give.

Same goes with adoption: no questions are asked or suggested, only a list of possible benefits. Apparently, only "when it comes to abortion, [are] there are many issues to consider when making a decision." Not when it comes to parenting or adoption. The one link provided there for adoption is for the Sheaffers book about their search for a child to adopt and what a gift giving someone a child is (because that's not any kind of pressure). In both sites past and current material on adoption, it is the only option where there is a link or list of "benefits" to making that choice: there are no lists of "benefits" for abortion or parenting. Since that time, some questions have been added to the 3-choices pages at both the APA and the helpline, but there is still a very clear bias present.

On the current helpline site, there is an online pregnancy test. No matter what you click -- even if you answer no to everything or that you just have a headache -- you will be directed to this page, which says that you could possibly be pregnant. The first link it provides tells you to see a "baby" in the womb "at every stage." That leads to a page with no gestation dates for the few very selective photos it provides. Soon after, it states, "The only way to know for sure if you are pregnant is to take a pregnancy test. Call the Helpline at 1-800-672-2296 or email a pregnancy counselor for a place near you where you can take a free and confidential pregnancy test." It does not suggest purchasing a home pregnancy test or seeing a bonafide healthcare provider for a test (nor that readers who are not sexually active but who have a headache should probably just take an aspirin, lie down and not worry themselves about pregnancy), but instead, to contact the helpline via phone or email for a free test.

On both sites there is a list of "possible emotional side effects" for abortion, but none listed for parenting or adoption, despite the fact that these possible effects commonly occur in women who are or have recently been pregnant, whether they terminate or continue a pregnancy and then choose parenting or adoption. On the helplines page of questions to ask oneself if considering an abortion, the question, "What would an adoption plan look like?" is included. There is no such question about parenting, nor do the lists for adoption or parenting ask what an abortion plan would look like.

Birth of the Helpline

The archive of the helpline site from 1999 states that, "America's Crisis Pregnancy Helpline was established January 1, 1995, when Mike and Anne Sheaffer rented two billboards in Dallas, Texas, to broadcast their dream of adopting a child... In the 1,100 calls the Sheaffers subsequently received, many were from women facing unplanned pregnancies who did not know where else to turn. Recognizing this unfulfilled need in society, the Sheaffers envisioned a confidential crisis line where women could receive the help they desperately needed. ACPH functions in this capacity today as its trained staff provides counseling, pregnancy-related information, and referrals for community resources. ACPH is an independent, non-profit entity and is funded primarily by corporate and private donations."

No organizational background is given at the current website for the helpline site, nor any reference to the Sheaffers or to a direct affiliation with the APA, even though matching addresses and domain registrants clearly show them to be directly affiliated. The statement on the current about page simply reads, "The American Pregnancy Helpline is a national free service that helps meet the needs of young women who are pregnant. The website provides access to information and answer to questions and provides access to a toll-free helpline to meet the needs of those with unexpected pregnancies," and then lists the hotline number to call. The current site for the APA, here, tells the story of the Sheaffers, and also notes that, "In 2003, the Helpline became the American Pregnancy Association, a foundation of health services for the public, including education, research, advocacy, public policy and community awareness. Utilizing a Medical Advisory Committee, and collaborating with other reproductive and pregnancy health organizations, APA is a recognized leader of reproductive and pregnancy health information." That page lists Dr. Philip B. Imler as President of the APA, a person I could find little reference to anywhere outside the organization. The only other reference I could find online for him listed Imler as the chief officer or director of Christian Adoptions International. The domain for that organization currently bounces to adoption.com and any archive of the original site -- christianadoptions.com -- is blocked.

On a fairly buried page, the founders of the APA are listed as J. Michael Sheaffer and Dr. Philip B. Imler. While searches for Mike Shaeffer primarily result in pages at the APA and the site for Hi-Line, his electrical and mechanical maintenance product delivery service, J. Michael Sheaffer can be found in a tax-exempt organization listing as the director of Pastors for Life International, an organization listed as a Right to Life organization in Texas with a return last filed in 2002. The website for PFLI appears to have gone dark in 2005. Until 2002, the web archive of the domain shows J. Michael Sheaffer listed as one of three Founding Directors of the organization. Hi-Line is shown as a supporter of PFLI in all years of the archive of the site.

In an archive of the site during the time Shaeffer was listed as a Founding Director, there is also a page which lists ways pastors or congregations could get involved with the mission of PFLI, and those include:

Start a pregnancy center or maternity home.
Create a "Mentoring Mothers" network for pregnant teenagers.
Start a post-abortion reconciliation ministry.
Refer women who are unexpectedly pregnant to pro-life safetynets.
Create web links to pregnancy, adoption, and post-abortion resources.

A bit further down the page, those actions or goals are paired with contact links, and the helpline is listed as a contact for "Help individuals gain access to pro-life safety nets," and "Identify and support a local pro-life agency (prayer, material assistance, financial, or volunteer)."

Dr. Brad Imler, whose doctorate is in psychology, is currently listed as their contact for corporate partnerships, but also credited in several places online -- in press quotes and in his profile at the forums for the site -- as the President of the APA, not Philip. (One can only presume them to be the same person, and perhaps Brad is simply a nickname.) Brad Imler is interviewed here in a publication for the American Life League. Brad Imler is listed as the domain registrant for both the helpine site and the APA site, and the registering organization for the APA is listed as the APH (American's Pregnancy Helpline, one presumes).

There is some particularly troubling information at one of those links up there:

One of the nation's leading manufacturers of pregnancy tests recently invited the American Pregnancy Association (APA), a Dallas-based "life-affirming" organization, to include inserts in 3.5 million test kits that encourage women to call a toll-free helpline if they have questions about pregnancy.

The invitation came from Inverness, a company that manufactures most pregnancy tests on the market. The APA previously tested the market by including inserts in 300,000 pregnancy and ovulation test kits. To date, the test has generated more than 1,500 calls on the APA helpline, and most come from women experiencing unplanned pregnancies. "You feel good when you know you've made a difference in someone's life," said APA President Brad Imler, who is seeking funds to cover the 3 cents cost of each insert. "Whatever the issues are, we like to be available to get people the support and education they need, and more importantly, to get them plugged into local support groups and resources."

Since 1995, the APA has educated women, provided resources and conducted research on numerous pregnancy-related topics.

"We're not involved in the political battle," Imler said. "Abortion is just one hot topic we deal with. Contraception, breast feeding, infertility—there are passionate views from different perspectives on all of these topics. The way we work has proven to be successful for us, and that's to provide education."

Statistics have shown that 70 percent of women did not have enough information before deciding to abort a pregnancy, Imler said. "What we find is that most women, when they receive information, desire to carry a child to term." The APA compiles statistics based on its own data, as well as research coming from other reliable sources, Imler said.

In 2005, the organization received 38,000 calls on its helpline. Though some of them pertained to topics such as prenatal care or infertility, the majority were about unplanned pregnancy.

So, a major provider of pregnancy tests apparently considered including or did at one time include (I do not see any listing of the APA number in current product inserts shown online, nor in the insert for the Fact Plus test I keep on hand in my own bathroom, so it seems safe to say they are not doing this now) the APA "helpline" which sends those who want to terminate pregnancies or discuss termination to CPCs. Clearblue Easy is, however, currently listed as a corporate sponsor on the APA's front page. (I sent an email to Inverness asking about their affiliation but have not yet received any response.)

About those calls, that "information," that counseling and those referrals.

One of our volunteers here at Scarleteen, S., called into the helpline number.

She reported that they answered as the American Pregnancy Association. She told them she was seven weeks pregnant and needed an abortion because she would be in danger via her parents if they found out she had gotten pregnant. They refused to give her a referral for any abortion services or any abortion counseling or information (nor did they suggest that she get somewhere safe despite her stating she was in potential danger), but asked where she was and gave the numbers of "somewhere nearby she could go to get information on abortion." That number was for the Monroeville Crisis Pregnancy Center, which also calls itself The Monroeville Pregnancy Care Center and Crossroads Pregnancy Services, has at least two different websites despite being the same business and who clearly is not in the business of providing any accurate information about abortion. It is a member of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. We can safely presume my volunteer was not given this number by accident particularly since when pressing for more information, this was all the person on the phone would give her, even though there is a Planned Parenthood nearby as well.

That helpline number -- the one where they stated to my volunteer they will not give information about or referrals to abortion services? -- is the only listed number to call for questions about abortion procedures on the to solicit dues-paying members directly online without advertising its links to CPCs. Chances are good that some people may have given to this organization who very much do not want to support CPCs.

The quick down and dirty, based on what I now know, is:

  • Mark and Annie Sheaffer want to adopt a baby, so they advertise on billboards to find one in 1995. A substantial number of women call them who have an unplanned pregnancy.
  • The same year, they begin a CPC, America's Crisis Pregnancy Helpline. It goes online in 1998. It is later retitled the American Pregnancy Helpline.
  • In 2001, J. Michael Sheaffer is listed as a Founding Director of PFLI, whose goals include referring women to pro-life "safetynets." Sometime in 2002, while his delivery business remains a listed supporter, he is no longer shown as a Founding Director.
  • In 2003, APH "became" the American Pregnancy Association... save that it didn't become anything else, it still existed. Now there were simply TWO different phone numbers to call, both reaching the same staff, listed at the same Texas address, both of which advertise counseling on all a woman’s options, both of which appear to funnel callers to CPCs, and which admittedly, primarily take calls not about maternal health topics, but about unplanned pregnancy.
  • In other words, the original CPC begets the APA which provides one more way to send women calling them -- the majority of which, by their own admission, are calling about unplanned pregnancy -- to more CPCs.

I cannot say if the APA exists solely or primarily as a way to feed CPCs. That's simply not information any of us could have who aren't the Shaeffers, the Imlers, or someone else involved directly with these organizations. However, given all of this information, given the personal bias involved, and how all of these links and affiliations are clearly purposefully not made plain, I certainly think it begs the question. It stands to be said that plenty of the information on pregnancy itself at the APA certainly is medically accurate: it appears that it is information on abortion and adoption where we can find most of the inaccuracy and bias, and they may very well be as passionate about maternal health as they are about the pro-life cause.

In the event that you or anyone you know followed that link, used those services and suffered in any way by doing so, I am tremendously sorry for my own part in that. This kind of thing is going to happen to anyone in any kind of journalism or education now and then -- and clearly, with this particular organization it has happened before to others -- but it's something I always want to do my best to avoid, and which I take full responsibility for if and when I fail. Obviously, the CPCs are as good at being misleading and deceptive as so many of us have reported them to be, and any one of us can get suckered. Clearly, some of us working in reproductive health and rights, myself included, are going to need to be even more vigilant than we already felt we were and work even harder to assure that we don't inadvertently make ourselves -- and more importantly, the women we serve -- more vulnerable than we already are in this era where choice is so threatened.

I'm pretty streetwise, and I do tend to have a pretty keen eye for bias, for things that don't quite fit, and for deception when it comes to reproductive options and aid. And yet. Of course, what I don't have is unlimited time: the look I took at this was not in-depth. I also relied on not hearing anything bad about these orgs from anyone else...and these are all easy errors someone looking for help with an unwanted pregnancy or looking for information on abortion or referrals to abortions services could make as well, many others also not having unlimited time and figuring that if they didn't hear anything bad, it must all be okay. Except when it's not.

In many ways this is a sadly perfect object lesson about CPCs -- and I am certainly glad to have discovered all of this about these organizations and to have the opportunity to reveal this information about them -- even if it's one I much rather would not have had, particularly at anyone else's expense. I didn't learn this lesson, after all, as a woman in the midst of an unwanted pregnancy seeking help and the accurate, supportive information I was assured I'd be given for all of my choices.

* A version of this piece is also available at RH Reality Check, here, and the staff at RH have been helping to make efforts to notify the reproductive health, pro-choice and feminist groups or organizations about this newly discovered information on the APA. To date, I am aware that Our Bodies, Ourselves and the National Abortion Federation since removed their links to the APA.


I work for Catholic Social Services as an adoption and pregnancy care worker. I just wanted to say that there are many good organizations that can help a pregnant woman by giving her support and assistance. Our agency is pro-life, but we would never harass, intimidate, or give false information to anyone about anything. I am just here to simply provide information on adoption and what the pros and cons are and the same for parenting. I just wanted to write this because I thought the article made so many agencies seem bad. I am sure there are ones that are, but there are also many agencies that are just trying to help a woman during a difficult situation.

Hey, anonymous.

When we talk about CPCs, we're really talking about exactly the kinds of organizations I was discussing: who are not going to tell a woman in advance -- or advertise -- that they are ONLY available to counsel or help with adoption or parenting, and who do give out false or medically inaccurate information with the aim of influencing her choice. Who, if a woman calls and asks if she can be counseled about abortion, or all her options, is told that no, she cannot as that agency does not provide that.

I don't have an issue with help agencies who make clear they exist to help only women continuing pregnancy: none at all. It's CPCs I'm addressing here, and they number in the thousands in the U.S. now.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col