Even in the state rated the most accessible for people seeking abortion services, a vast network of organizations exists for the sole purpose of dissuading people from terminating their pregnancies, according to a report released Thursday.
NARAL Pro-Choice California sent women undercover over the past year to more than a quarter of the state’s 167 crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), gathering information on the quality and kind of services offered by the anti-choice groups that run those facilities, in addition to the experience a person might have using a CPC as a resource during a pregnancy.
The report’s findings? CPCs strategically misinform and deceive pregnant people, always with the same underlying (or explicit) message: bring the pregnancy to term.
Ninety-one percent of centers visited by NARAL doled out misinformation about the effects of abortion on a person’s physical and mental health, saying that having an abortion would increase the risk of breast cancer, infertility, miscarriage, and/or depression that results in suicide.
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“She told me that for some women, [abortion clinics] dilate them too fast and they might miscarry a lot because the cervix might not close up all the way,” said one investigator, whose name was concealed. “So I might have a lot of miscarriages if I aborted the baby.”
In another instance, one CPC employee mistook an investigator’s intra-uterine device (IUD) for a fetus during an ultrasound, telling the investigator that it was “her baby.”
CPC workers, according to the report, tell women that going through with an induced abortion is unnecessary, because the chance of a spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage, is 30-50 percent.
This information is misleading on a number of levels. An estimated half of all fertilized eggs fail to implant, so CPC workers could be offering this “advice” to women who would ostensibly not even be pregnant. An estimated 15 percent of established pregnancies end in pregnancy.
This bad information can cause women to put off an abortion until later into a pregnancy, at which point it is less safe, less affordable, and less accessible.
According to the report, workers at the centers in California also used language to shame and dissuade women from seeking an abortion. Almost 70 percent of centers called the fetus a “baby” and told the pregnant person that she was already a mother. One CPC worker told a NARAL investigator that she should put off her goal to attend college in order to bring her unintended pregnancy to term.
The California investigation was released this week in conjunction with a national report detailing the ways in which CPCs convince women not to have an abortion. That NARAL Pro-Choice America report found that the estimated 3,500 crisis pregnancy centers in the country, many of which receive taxpayer funding and legislative support, use sophisticated tactics to lure pregnant people interested in abortion options into the clinic.
CPCs effectively disguise themselves as abortion clinics, buying billboards and ads on buses that characterize the centers as offering unbiased options counseling.
CPCs also buy or lease space near abortion clinics or other medical facilities, attempting to give the impression that they too can offer medical service and advice. One CPC in Massachusetts, the Problem Pregnancy of Worcester, was located on the same floor as a Planned Parenthood and used the same acronym. After Planned Parenthood relocated, so did the CPC—across the street from the Planned Parenthood’s new facility.
Center workers, most of whom are not medical professionals, often dress in white coats like a physician would.
Unlike many states, which explicitly support the work of CPCs in the form of funding, some cities in California have taken steps to regulate the centers. A 2011 San Francisco city ordinance prohibits the anti-choice centers from engaging in false or misleading advertising. The ordinance also allows a judge to order CPCs to post notices regarding whether they offer abortion services.
The law was upheld in court last month after it was challenged by First Resort, a nonprofit anti-choice group, as a violation of free speech. In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown said the ordinance does not violate the constitution because it is commercial speech, which is not protected by the First Amendment.
Overall, CPCs in California operate just like those in the rest of the United States. As Amanda Marcotte wrote for Rewire this week, CPCs have at least one thing in common: the consistent use of misinformation.
“Every step of the way, these facilities rely on one primary tactic to try to get women not to abort: lying,” Marcotte wrote. “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?)”