A Referral You Don’t Want

College heath centers routinely refer young women to these crisis pregnancy centers, which are often purposefully located near college campuses.

You’re a college freshman, and you
think you might be pregnant. Your campus health center doesn’t handle
pregnancies, so you’re given a list of nearby clinics. You pick one,
thinking that’s where you’ll get a pregnancy test and, if it’s
positive, be counseled about your reproductive healthcare choices.

Instead, at this clinic you go to, you’re
given a lecture on abstaining from sex. You’re also harangued about
the “dangers” of abortion, and you’re handed a plastic model of
a purported 12-week-old fetus, complete with a fact-sheet on “pre-born
babies.” Abortion is obviously not an option here.

That’s because you’ve been referred
to a so-called “pregnancy resource center” or “crisis pregnancy
center” (CPC). There are as many as 4,000 of them in the U.S. (twice
as many as the number of abortion providers), many affiliated with evangelical
Christian ministries and all with a mission to persuade young women
with unplanned pregnancies not to have abortions. But they often mask
this mission with deceptive advertising tactics, such as listing themselves
under “abortion services” in the yellow pages and pretending to
offer women a range of options.

Yet college heath centers routinely refer
young women to these places, which are often purposefully located near
college campuses. A survey conducted this past summer by the Feminist
Majority Foundation (FMF) and reported in the Fall 2008 issue of
magazine (I’m vice president of the FMF and executive
editor of the magazine), found that of 398 campus health centers at
four-year colleges that responded to a questionnaire, 48 percent routinely
refer women who think they might be pregnant to CPCs.

“We want to give students all of the
options,” is the best reason that health center directors could give
FMF researchers for making referrals to CPCs (81 percent of the health
centers also refer students to full-service clinics). But the situation
is troubling for women’s health advocates.

For one thing, students often face delay
tactics at CPCs to discourage them from finding out whether they’re
pregnant, thus increasing the chance that they’ll be too late for
a safe, early-term abortion. CPCs have also been shown to promulgate
false and misleading information-such as telling young women that
abortions increase their risk of breast cancer, increase their risk
of infertility, or cause mental-health trauma. All of these notions
have been widely discredited by health researchers. Most recently, the
American Psychological Association, in a study released this past summer,
confirmed that “there is no credible evidence that a single elective
abortion … in and of itself causes mental health problems.”

If students visit CPCs instead of full-care
clinics, they might also be putting their health in immediate jeopardy.
“Any attempt to delay care and try and scare a woman into keeping
an unwanted pregnancy only serves to put her at higher risk-especially
if she has an ectopic pregnancy,” says Beth Jordan, M.D., a women’s
health specialist and medical director of the FMF.

Is this the sort of care and counseling
parents expect from their childrens’ colleges to provide? No, it’s
time to expect more. Campus health centers should establish policies
to refer students only to comprehensive health clinics, not to ideological
masqueraders. Think about it: Would we want a college to refer students
with illnesses to a so-called clinic that didn’t believe in medicine
and only handed out placebos?

We should also be demanding regulation
of CPCs so that they’re no longer allowed to deceive women about their
mission. Several states are considering bills that would require CPCs
to state that they are not medical centers and do not provide
factual medical information. On the federal level, bills remain stalled
in both the House and Senate that would prevent CPCs from using deceptive
advertising. Write your congresspeople and ask them to take a

Finally, there’s been nearly $14 million
in federal abstinence-only-until-marriage money channeled to CPCs under
the Bush Administration. We must ask the next presidential administration
to halt that runaway gravy train.

Young women’s health is at stake.

For more on crisis pregnancy centers, check out the Fall 2008 print edition of Ms. magazine.