Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers.
In “Milk,” the fourth episode of the fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead’s two surviving handmaids are on the run. As they make their way across the country, June (Elisabeth Moss) admits to her companion, Janine (Madeline Brewer), that she betrayed their fellow handmaids, revealing the location of their safehouse after Gilead’s secret police threatened to hurt June’s daughter. June tells Janine she “would have done the same thing” if it were her child, but Janine rejects this idea, saying June has no idea what she would have done.
It’s then we learn Janine not only had an abortion pre-Gilead, but a stigmatizing experience at a so-called crisis pregnancy center (CPC).
Like others seeking an abortion across the United States who wind up inside these ill-intentioned centers, Janine accidentally sought help from an anti-choice clinic that used biased language like “your baby,” and told her abortion is dangerous and carries risks like infertility, cancer, and PTSD.
Ultimately, Janine has a medication abortion with a provider who validates her feelings. The doctor tells her that everything she heard from the CPC was “a bunch of crap.” Places like that, she says, “lie to women to convince them to keep unwanted pregnancies.”
Janine’s flashback was perhaps meant to show how internalized stigma can result from our experiences with crisis pregnancy centers. After all, perhaps Janine’s experience led her to question if she could sacrifice her child if she’s had an abortion.
The episode was written in consulation with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the organization released a statement applauding the show for portraying a medication abortion and depicting the harms caused by crisis pregnancy centers.
“It felt important, to me, for people to hear what women who are seeking an abortion go through; the ways that they are manipulated,” Brewer told the Hollywood Reporter. Nevertheless, Brewer said the episode failed to show the extent of the trauma crisis pregnancy centers inflict: “What we showed in the show is the gentle version. It was manipulative—they absolutely lie to her and it’s disturbing, but it’s the gentler version of the real-life scenario.”
She’s right. Viewers should know the show’s depiction of a crisis pregnancy center only scratches the surface when it comes to the trauma inflicted by CPCs upon pregnant people.
What is a crisis pregnancy center?
Crisis pregnancy centers, which many pro-choice advocates call “fake clinics,” are not medical facilities, and they usually do not have any medical professionals working there. But they still significantly outnumber abortion clinics in the country—especially in states like Texas.
More often than not, CPCs are strategically located next to licensed abortion clinics (and near colleges), intentionally have a similar sounding name, and use targeted advertising (like offering “free ultrasounds,”“free pregnancy tests,” “abortion referrals,” or “nonjudgmental support”) to trick people into coming inside.
Yes, that’s right: Our government quite literally takes food out of children’s mouths to prevent people from having an abortion.
What does a crisis pregnancy center do?
Maleeha, 27, is an abortion storyteller with We Testify and the community organizer at Texas Equal Access Fund, an abortion fund serving the northern region of Texas. Years ago, when she found out she was pregnant, she knew she needed a medication abortion and wanted to confirm her length of pregnancy in a way that protected her privacy while using her father’s insurance. Her cousin shared a list of low-cost clinics she found through a Google search, and one—unbeknownst to them—was a Dallas-based crisis pregnancy center, White Rose Women’s Center.
“I was like, ‘Oh, hey, this one’s not too far from where I live,’” Maleeha said. She immediately recognized the center as Christian-based from the biblical imagery, including a statue of Jesus, all of which made her feel uncomfortable in a presumed health-care setting as a person who doesn’t hold those beliefs.
The two older white women working at the center’s front desk were wearing “white lab coats,” and the sonographer was wearing scrubs. But Maleeha doesn’t believe they were actual medical professionals, despite their appearance. After being forced to watch a 30-minute video that she calls “BS propaganda,” and listening to fearmongering and inaccurate risks of abortion, like cancer and infertility, Maleeha and her partner decided they needed to “play along” in order to get what she needed.
“They would not do an ultrasound until they were convinced that I would not have an abortion, and [they] started telling me how bad abortion is for the body, how it gives you cancer … they started telling me all of those lies that they feed to everybody,” Maleeha told Rewire News Group.
But she never should have had to play along. Pregnant people deserve evidence-based, patient-centered, and trauma-informed care. And yet not only did Maleeha have to pretend to be excited about a pregnancy she wasn’t going to continue, when she told the staffer performing the ultrasound that she has a medical condition—vaginismus, which makes things like Pap smears, sex, and using tampons painful—as a result of a sexual assault, the CPC staff member minimized her needs and invalidated her as a survivor.
Maleeha said the staff couldn’t understand why she was asking if the ultrasound was transvaginal. “I said I’m a survivor, and they made a really insensitive comment about how I’m pregnant and I can learn how to deal with pain,” she said. The comment angered her because if they were saying it to her, “they’re saying it to other survivors.”
The violating behavior didn’t end there. The CPC staff lied to her and said Texas banned medication abortions because they’re dangerous. Maleeha said she panicked, because a medication abortion was the only option she felt comfortable having with her medical condition.
She eventually traveled from Texas to the Planned Parenthood in Colorado—which cost her an additional $600 in flights and other unexpected fees that she never needed to pay. Several years after her abortion, Maleeha learned that medication abortion in Texas was never banned to begin with, which means she never needed to travel out of state. She could have had a safe, accessible medication abortion in her own city free from coercion. The CPC took that from her.
Sharon, 30, was 18 when she encountered a crisis pregnancy center in Arizona. Her first pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage, and she sought to confirm viability upon finding out she was pregnant again. She was uninsured and didn’t know how to get insurance, and a local abortion clinic told her they weren’t able to offer financial assistance for an ultrasound.
“I decided to drive up to the closest ‘free pregnancy test’ places to see what they could help me with. The free prenatal care’ place that I knew of was further than I had gas to get to,” Sharon told Rewire News Group.
She remembers four other cars in the parking lot, and—other than the sound of her own footsteps—silence, a stark contrast to the screams of protesters outside abortion clinics. Inside the CPC, it seemed like a “quaint little doctor’s office,” and Sharon explained to the person at the intake window that she was pregnant, has a history of miscarriage, and didn’t know what to do.
“The woman at the window spoke in a very gentle tone and reached for my hand through the window [and said], ‘We are here to help you make the best choice for you and your baby,’” Sharon said.
Sharon says she didn’t need that—she needed an ultrasound. Instead, the anti-choice pregnancy center bombarded her with a forced pregnancy test and handed her “a stack” of adoption and post-abortion grief retreat brochures. She couldn’t get an ultrasound until she completed “counseling,” which involved being told inaccurate facts about supposed abortion risks, like infertility and future miscarriages, and watching a video with anti-choice imagery and messaging that was triggering for her.
“The videos were extremely traumatic for me as someone with a history of miscarriage,” Sharon said. “There were a lot of ultrasound videos showing how cute and happy embryos are, bouncing around inside of mommy who they already love. There was also a lot of talk about embryonic and fetal pain. I specifically remember a quote: ‘Babies of any age don’t die painlessly.’”
The video concluded with a depiction of racially diverse families who decided against abortion “holding their beautiful babies,” Sharon said. And when she was brought in for her ultrasound, the video’s imagery made a complex situation even worse.
“My baby showed up immediately,” she said. “It wasn’t moving. It wasn’t bouncing. I thought it was kind of cute. But it definitely didn’t love me, at least not anymore. It was not viable. I was never going to be one of those parents with the beautiful baby. And since my baby died it must have felt pain.”
When Sharon asked the CPC staff what she should do now, they told her to go to the emergency room if she started to bleed, but “since it wasn’t ectopic,” she should be “fine.” Sharon left the center in tears.
Why are accurate representations important?
Maleeha and Sharon’s experience are not uncommon. Many have shared the ways crisis pregnancy centers have traumatized them, and The Handmaid’s Tale has an abundance of problematic behaviors to pull from when it comes to portraying the violations of CPCs.
Accurate representation of people who have abortions and their experiences isn’t just important, it’s necessary. Exposing the deceit of crisis pregnancy centers and disparities of abortion access can build collective power to change things.
Maleeha said if she doesn’t share her experience with CPCs, people might not know the reality of them—they might believe the depiction in The Handmaid’s Tale is as bad as it gets. But because she’s open about what happened to her, someone reading it may be “infuriated” and motivated to stand against their tax dollars funding behaviors that traumatize survivors and other pregnant people.
“I don’t want my tax dollars going to CPCs—I don’t want that happening. I want people to go get the care they’re looking for without being manipulated into carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. [People can] work with organizations like TEA Fund … because we help people have abortions,” Maleeha said, adding that even the act of funding abortion is a way to combat what CPCs are doing.
CPCs “manipulate people into doing something they don’t want to do, but for us [abortion funds], if someone wants an abortion, we’re not going to try and talk them out of it,” she said.
Those who want to stand against CPCs can do things like contact their local representatives and volunteer with local abortion funds or practical support organizations. If you don’t have the capacity to volunteer your time, you can also donate. If you can’t donate, Maleeha says you can organize within your community in other ways through conversations with people you know who may be in a position to show support, too.
“I think that’s how we build community,” she said. “We look to other people who have similar values and form alliances, and then we do the work.”