Crisis Pregnancy Centers Are Pretty Bad at Dissuading People Seeking Abortion

Until recently, a person who Googled "abortion clinic" might be directed to a CPC instead. CPCs, as a result, are reaching more clients than ever, but as statistics indicate, persuading very few to remain pregnant.

The tactics employed by CPCs to attract pregnant clients are legion and growing. Shutterstock

Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) are billed as alternatives to abortion clinics, but new data suggests they largely fail at their mission, persuading less than 4 percent of clients to forgo abortion care.

Of the 2.6 million clients who visited crisis pregnancy centers since 2004, 3.52 percent, or 92,679 people, decided against having an abortion. The statistics come from eKYROS.com, Inc., an anti-choice, Texas-based software company, which says more than 1,200 CPCs use its software to track clients and measure results.

The publicly available data, as the eKYROS website explains, reflects “clients who came to the center with initial intentions of Abortion or Undecided and then changed their mind to carry baby to term.”

The eKYROS software allows CPCs to collect demographic information on clients and categorize them based on a variety of criteria, including whether they are “abortion minded,” “abortion vulnerable,” or “likely to carry“—categories described in a software demo posted online. These categories are key to assessing whether the facilities are achieving what is at the heart of CPCs’ mission: convincing pregnant people to “choose life,” a viewpoint reflecting the largely evangelical Christian ideals of the centers’ religious operators.

“We can change the culture one woman at a time,” Kathleen Eaton Bravo, founder of a growing chain of California-based CPCs called Obria Medical Clinics, told the National Catholic Register last year. “We need them to develop a relationship with us, rather than Planned Parenthood.”

These “relationships” are key to the ability of CPCs to show their worth to religious backers. The centers showcase their “success stories,” or “lives saved,” in annual reports, fundraising campaigns, and promotional materials.

Meanwhile, Republican-held legislatures are funneling millions to these anti-choice facilities, buoyed by “success stories,” which statistics suggest are few and far between.

One of these “success stories” is Evelin, a 26-year-old who says she was jobless, going to school, and sleeping on her mother’s couch when she learned of her pregnancy. Recounting her story in a video produced by the CPC Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, Evelin describes how the center’s staff persuaded her to remain pregnant by showing her “how big” her “baby” was and by giving her a baby book.

Evelin’s story is one of a handful that Los Angeles Pregnancy Services promotes online.

eKYROS also emphasizes results, noting in an online demo: “In this ministry there are always tough questions that need to be asked: Is this particular part of our ministry making a difference?” CPCs are nonprofits, primarily funded by religious groups, individual donors, churches, and increasingly by public dollars.

But statistics reported by eKYROS suggest that CPCs overwhelmingly fail to reach or persuade their target audience of people seeking to end a pregnancy, despite outnumbering abortion clinics. At least 22 states furnish some form of public funding to CPCs, as Republican-majority legislatures cut financial support for Planned Parenthood.

CPCs are often tied to national anti-choice umbrella groups, such as Heartbeat International, the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, and Care Net, which alone numbers 1,100 affiliates. An eKYROS demo posted online indicates that some Care Net-affiliated CPCs use the software to report to the national office, although it’s not clear how many.

eKYROS and Care Net did not respond to multiple information requests, including a query about an apparent mismatch between figures reported by Care Net and eKYROS.

Care Net in its most recent annual report said it “saved” 73,000 lives in 2014. eKYROS, however, reported 3,476 births in 2014 from “clients who came to the center with initial intentions of Abortion or Undecided and then changed their mind to carry baby to term and the pregnancy outcome was confirmed as a birth by the center.”

Anti-choice groups typically equate preventing abortions to “saving lives,” so the basis for the 69,524 “lives” discrepancy is unclear.

Kimberly Kelly, who has studied CPCs for a decade and is associate professor of sociology and director of gender studies at Mississippi State University, told Rewire in an interview that the centers frequently count both the pregnant person and the fetus as “saved lives,” essentially double counting.

The tactics employed by CPCs to attract pregnant clients are legion and growing.

CPCs have for years masqueraded as reproductive health clinics, offering free pregnancy tests and sonograms to draw in pregnant people. Some facilities go as far as setting up shop in closed abortion clinics—a ruse to mislead former clients of the clinics. Oftentimes, the anti-choice activists staged outside of abortion clinics have ties to CPCs. Their aim is to divert patients seeking abortion care with promises of free health care, housing, and financial support at CPCs.

Federal and independent investigations have caught CPC staff lying about the so-called risks of abortion care.

The centers are also evolving outreach to incorporate high-tech tools, employing digital marketing campaigns to reach patients seeking to end a pregnancy, and offering information via chat, text, and online video appointments.

Until recently, a person who Googled “abortion clinic” might be directed to a CPC instead.

CPCs, as a result, are reaching more clients than ever, as eKYROS statistics indicate, but persuading very few to remain pregnant. CPCs in 2015 convinced 4 percent of 307,068 clients to change their minds “to carry the baby to term,” compared to 1 percent of 43,086 in 2004.

Despite that, according to figures compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, ten states agreed to budget about $17 million in 2015 to providers of “abortion alternatives.” 

By all accounts, eKYROS’ statistics, which rely on self-reports by CPC operators, are credible. Independent research and surveys by anti-choice groups find a similar lack of success by CPCs at dissuading patients seeking abortion.

In the first academic study of evangelical CPCs published in 2014 in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Kelly, who has long studied CPCs, writes that the centers’ national leadership has “issued several reports lamenting the declining proportions of ‘abortion-minded’ women visiting centers.” These reports suggest, as Kelly observes, that CPCs “primarily serve women who would have continued their pregnancies anyway.”

A new study in the journal Contraception reinforces these findings, showing that 2 percent of 273 clients at an Indiana pregnancy center asked about abortion over a six-month period. The center in the study offers diapers, baby clothes, parenting resources, along with abortion referrals—the only center in the state to do so. Nearly nine in ten clients asked for diapers.

A 2014 survey by the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a research group opposed to abortion rightsreportedly found that only 12 percent of clients at the nation’s 2,500 CPCs were pregnant people seeking abortion care.

The institute reportedly recommended adding more comprehensive services, particularly medical services.

“People want a center that is medical and has services that are affordable,” institute president Chuck Donovan said of the survey results.

Kelly, however, suggested that attempts at reinvention by CPCs may ignore larger, institutional shortcomings. In her research, she described a fundamental disconnect between the staff at CPCs—largely white, middle-class women—and the clientele, who generally are low-income and racially and ethnically diverse.

And, as Kelly told Rewire, the fact that CPCs fall far short of their goal doesn’t mean operators will call it quits or regard the centers as failures. If anything, the meager results cast the centers in the role of David, squaring off against the Goliath of Planned Parenthood and other health-care organizations in a culture war.

“It’s their duty to take action as God would want, the actual outcomes are up to God,” Kelly explained. “The less successful they are, the greater the proof that a fallen society needs them.”