There are between 2,500 and 4,000 crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) operating in the US, all devoted to preventing the women who walk through their doors from getting abortions (meanwhile fewer than 2,000 clinics offer abortion). Some of these anti-abortion centers are part of massive evangelical Christian ministries, some are standalones, and others are attached to individual Catholic churches, whose priests sometimes bless the centers’ ultrasound machines to power them with extra holiness for their main task: convincing a woman who may want to have an abortion to have a baby instead. Thanks to George W. Bush’s breezy hand-outs of public money to Christian abstinence programs, many of these religious, anti-choice centers got millions in federal funding in the 2000s.
Many centers don’t look too different from regular women’s health clinics, and that’s the whole point. If a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy walks into a CPC assuming it’s a women’s health clinic and not a front in the abortion wars, she’s more likely to believe what they tell her there: like when a staffer says that abortion causes breast cancer (not according to actual studies), or that she might bleed to death on the table (so unlikely it’s close to impossible), or that she can’t have an abortion if she lacks legal residency (blatantly false), or any number of misleading and manipulative tactics documented in investigations of CPCs over the years. (In one case, a volunteer handed an undercover investigator a model of a 12-week-old fetus to “show her boyfriend.”) (See the 2004 Waxman report [PDF] and the results of an undercover investigation by NARAL Pro-choice Maryland Fund [PDF].)
Not all CPCs misinform women about their intentions or wave plastic fetuses in their faces. Some are clear about their anti-abortion stance and a lot offer services helpful to children after they’ve exited the womb, like child care and parental education, which is not something that can be said for most of the players in the anti-choice movement.
Still, multiple investigations have revealed that CPCs use a wide variety of tactics to lure pregnant women in order to scare, guilt and manipulate them into carrying their pregnancies to term. Some advertise in the same part of the Yellow Pages as abortion providers. Many are situated right next to Planned Parenthood clinics. A representative of the National Abortion Federation told AlterNet a member clinic reported that volunteers from a neighboring CPC have intercepted women headed into the clinic and steered them into the CPC instead.
There’s another strategy that’s gotten less attention: an under-the-radar campaign by large anti-choice organizations, like the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates and Focus on the Family, to fund and guide the conversion of CPCs into licensed, limited-service medical clinics, ramping up their services to include pregnancy tests and ultrasound. Although they offer only limited women’s health services — none offer mammograms, for instance — medical clinic status has led many to start offering early prenatal care, prenatal vitamins, STI testing and even eye exams. A few have started advertising pap smears.
But in a bad economy, and with GOP governors across the country having spent the last legislative session coming up with endlessly creative ways to choke off funding to Planned Parenthood clinics (which many low-income women depend on for their health care), women’s health choices are dwindling.
On its website, NIFLA, the main group behind the push to convert CPCs into medical clinics, boasts that conversion leads to “major increases in the numbers of clients they are seeing on a monthly basis, as well as a dramatic increase in the number of clients choosing life.”
Unsurprsingly, there’s a lot of right-wing muscle behind the push to make CPCs more attractive to women who may be considering abortion. (“If you are pregnant, or might be pregnant, you might be feeling overwhelmed” an ad suggests over a picture of a wide-eyed young woman on the CareNet website. “You are not alone” consoles the tagline.)
In 1998, NIFLA established the Life Choice Project (TLC), which equips CPCs with legal tools and information to convert to medical clinics. They have a team of law consultants to help shepperd CPCs through the complex legal process, and an advisory board of medical professionals to oversee member clinics and make sure they comply with standard medical practices.
Focus on the Family is also involved. In 2004 the anti-gay, anti-choice religious-right group starting handing out “TLC grants” that fully fund the conversion of CPCs that make it through their application process, which FoF uses to determine two things: if a CPC has its act together (with a functioning board, CEOs and directors) to handle the legal hurdles of the transition, and perhaps more importantly, whether the center is worth investing in.
The latter consideration rides on which CPCs are the most likely to influence the most women to have babies. According to the assessment form, a center is more likely to get a grant if it operates in a large metro area, in a state with public funding for abortion beyond rape, incest or if the life of the mother is at risk. It also helps if the state gets an A or B grade for abortion access from NARAL. Another question asks if four or more public abortion providers serve its city.
Also advantageous is the presence of a large number of young women likely to find themselves pregnant, single and confused about it: “City has a four-year university with a student body of 15,000 or more (age 18- 26, excluding online students), that’s a target audience your organization will serve,” according to the self-assessment form.
In September, a NIFLA-affiliated CPC called Pregnancy Resource Center in Minnesota (where Planned Parenthood had to close six clinics in the state after Congressional budget cuts to Title X) hawked the enticing combo of HIV testing, Pap smear and a Little Caesar’s pizza in an ad placed in the back of the St. Cloud university student guide book.
The website of Choices Inc. in Kansas (10 CPC “clinics” to three Planned Parenthood clinics; a judge just blocked a law defunding Planned Parenthood that would have forced them to shut down one of them) advertises physician care and features a photo of a doctor feeling a newborn baby’s heartbeat. On the site, Scott Stringfield, the clinic’s medical director, promises to “Treat you with kindness, love you enough to tell the truth, give you the best medical care we can provide and remain by your side through this difficult time.”
Whether they try to draw women in with crappy pizza or the promise of free access to a doctor, the big picture stays the same. The NIFLA FAQ page assures interested parties that all the bells and whistles of medical clinic status will not thwart the clinics’ endgame. ”If our center becomes a medical clinic, will we cease to provide crisis intervention counseling? No! A Pregnancy Resource Medical Clinic continues to provide crisis intervention counseling for women who are in crisis pregnancies.”
Despite their religious overtones, CPCs continue to draw public money, mostly from various shadowy corners of state budgets.
But that’s not the only boost they’re getting from states. Recently South Dakota legislators passed a bill that would have forced women not only to wait 72 hours before getting an abortion, but to pay a visit to an anti-abortion CPC as well.
So as one arm of the anti-choice movement tries to eviscerate the nationwide women’s health services delivered by Planned Parenthood for decades, another is helping boost a version that offers severely limited services stacked with an anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-sex, aggressively Christian worldview.
The anti-choice agenda is going ahead full-steam.