The Epidemic of Lying at Crisis Pregnancy Centers Exposes the Moral Rot in the Anti-Choice Movement

A new NARAL report shows how central lying is to the operation of CPCs. How are we supposed to believe that anti-choicers mean well when they lie so much and so aggressively?

When you put on a lab coat and try to trick a woman into thinking you’re a medical worker, it is not an accident. It's a lie. Shutterstock

This new NARAL report about the tactics of CPCs is called Crisis Pregnancy Centers Lie: The Insidious Threat to Reproductive Freedom. It’s an apt title, because once you’re done reading it, you could be forgiven for wondering if anti-choice activists are capable of telling the truth about anything, much less reproductive health care. Every step of the way, these facilities rely on one primary tactic to try to get women not to abort: lying. They lie to get you in the door. They lie when you’re in the room. They lie about the law, and lie about the risks of abortion, and lie about birth control, and lie about abortion providers. It’s probably easier and less time-consuming to make a list of what CPCs don’t lie about. (Their address, perhaps?)

It’s all even more stunning when you remember that these are the folks who like to present themselves as good Christians and their pro-choice opponents as agents of evil. I realize that, in our age of climate change denialism and outrageous—and subsequently shrugged-off—fabrications from Fox News personalities, dishonesty has become the expected norm for the right. It’s exhausting to keep getting outraged over it.

Still, NARAL’s report is an important reminder of how serious this problem is. Something has gone very wrong when so many people are willing to go to such great lengths to deceive women in this way. It becomes even more disturbing when you realize that the lies are all in service of trying to manipulate people into making a decision—having a baby—that has lifelong consequences and therefore should be based on what the woman wants and needs, and not what some strangers who are overly invested in her uterus want her to do.

NARAL’s investigators went undercover in more than ten separate states to create a national picture of what CPCs are and what they do. One common element they found was that the lying begins before a woman even enters the facility. “If women knew that CPCs existed only to scare them out of considering their full range of reproductive health-care options, particularly abortion, they would avoid them entirely,” the report reads.

Because of this, CPCs have to trick women into coming in the door. To do this, “CPCs employ a number of tactics to get women in their doors, including strategically placed online and offline advertisements, locations near comprehensive women’s health-care clinics, and even state-sanctioned referrals.” CPC ads often use the words “options” or “choices,” as if the centers offer more than one: having the baby. The report notes that “Care Net and Heartbeat International spend more than $18,000 per month on pay-per-click advertising campaigns that target women searching for abortion providers,” hoping that women mistake them for abortion-providing clinics. They even set up shop near actual clinics intending for women to wander in by mistake.

Once you’re in, the lies continue. Many CPCs encourage their volunteer staff to pretend the center is a medical clinic—they wear white coats and give women “intake” paperwork, for instance—to create the illusion that they are about to receive legitimate care. Once such an illusion of medical authority is created, CPC administrators use the trust people put in health-care workers to push even more lies. NARAL found that most CPCs falsely claimed that abortion is dangerous, citing flatly false risks of sepsis, breast cancer, mental illness, or infertility to try to scare women away from the procedure. Some also lied about the legal restrictions on abortion, trying to convince women they have more time than they do to decide. And many lied about contraception in an effort to discourage its use, showing that this is not, despite anti-choice claims to the contrary, about “life,” but about trying to get unwilling women to get pregnant and give birth.

It’s tempting, in the spirit of fair-mindedness, to wonder if perhaps all this lying is unintentional and the result of conservatives deceiving themselves as much as the women they target. When it comes to some of the false information they give about the risks of abortion and contraception, that’s certainly possible. As with climate change denialism, there are certainly conservatives who wish something was true so much they talk themselves into believing it.

But while self-deception could certainly play a role in choosing to spread falsehoods such as “abortion causes breast cancer” or “buying a condom is like buying a bag of balloons and expecting that not one will have a hole in it,” it is clear that some of the practices CPCs engage in are intentionally underhanded. When you put on a lab coat and try to trick a woman into thinking you’re a medical worker, it is not an accident. When you open a center on the same block as a Planned Parenthood and hope women wander in by mistake, that is a calculated move. The only conclusion is that this chronic lying is on purpose, and the people who are involved in it know what they are doing.

No doubt the folks who do this feel justified in all this deliberate lying. Maybe they’ve convinced themselves they’re lying for women’s own good. Maybe they feel so much ownership over the bodies of strangers that they feel entitled to lie in order to regain control. Since most anti-choice activists deny that they’re lying in the first place (another lie), there’s no real way to know. Most people aren’t mustache-twirling villains who do bad things for the fun of it, though, so it’s certain that most people who engage in this have created an elaborate moral justification for doing so.

But anti-choicers would do well to ask themselves if their position is really the moral one if they need to lie (and lie and lie) in service of it. They’re exploiting women they know are feeling scared or uncertain. They’re finding women they know are seeking help and deceiving them in order to keep them from getting to that help. Whatever ethical justifications anti-choicers create for themselves, from an outsider’s perspective, this looks exactly like preying upon the weak and vulnerable. Which isn’t a very good look for people who want us to believe they are the morally serious ones.