It’s happened to all of us. We’ve all driven down a rural, Texas highway and passed a billboard that reads: “Pregnant? Need help? Give us a call.” Advertisements like that belong to crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), non-profit organizations that focus on persuading pregnant people to not have abortions. Such centers have mastered the art of advertising themselves as unbiased, comprehensive health clinics when in reality, they are anything but. They provide dangerous, medically inaccurate information to pregnant people that may delay or interfere with their access to abortion and contraceptive services. They deliberately mislead patients in order to influence their reproductive health decisions, and consequently rob them of their ability to make informed decisions. Thus, it is critically important that we draw more attention to CPCs as they pose a tremendous risk to public health.
Originating in the 1960s as abortion was growing increasingly politicized, most CPCs are affiliated with evangelical Christian organizations that actively lobby against abortion. To this day, such centers present themselves as healthcare facilities, yet they are generally unlicensed and unregulated as they are not official medical practices. CPCs often open near abortion providers and choose names that resemble those of established clinics. Moreover, some crisis pregnancy centers go as far as listing themselves in phone books or online directories under categories such as “abortion services” or “family-planning centers.” According to Karissa Haugeberg, an associate professor at Tulane University, by the beginning of the 21stcentury, CPCs had become the most popular form of antiabortion activism, with approximately 40,000 staff members encountering over a million patients each year.
Crisis pregnancy clinics pose a threat to public health because they rely on propaganda to manipulate people away from considering abortion as a viable option. For instance, one study examined 254 CPC websites and found that 203 of these provided at least one false or misleading piece of information. These clinics believe that they can persuade people not to have abortions if they supply them with misleading information about the physical and psychological risks of the procedure. Thus, their volunteers are trained to tell people that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, future infetility, and depression. Hearing such claims causes patients to reconsider abortion as an option as they become concerned about health risks. However, such claims have been vehemently refuted by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists and the American Psychological Association.
Moreover, CPCs obstruct access to timely abortion. Frequently, clinic volunteers withhold key information about abortion referral. Most insidiously, according to Haugeberg, people who mistakenly visit CPCs have reported that clinic volunteers lied to them about how far along they were in their pregnancies or insisted that they were not pregnant at all. This tactic often prevents people from obtaining legal abortions elsewhere, as they believe they have more time at their disposal or may even have been tricked into thinking they are not pregnant altogether. By the time they realize that they have been duped, it is too late to legally acquire an abortion. For example, according to Vice News, a woman named Donna was given an inaccurate gestational age by a CPC volunteer working at the White Rose Women’s Center in Dallas. Later, when Donna confronted the clinic staff, they tried to justify intentionally misleading her about her gestational age by stating they “have to fight for each other”.
It is also crucial to highlight that CPCs disproportionately attract low-income people and people of color because they advertise themselves as offering free pregnancy-related services. CPCs have recently chosen to focus on expanding their services in neighborhoods that are home to large numbers of minority populations as the rates of unplanned pregnancies are higher among Black and Latinx populations. Through a combination of targeted marketing campaigns and training, crisis pregnancy centers operated by Heartbeat International, an anti-abortion organization, are proliferating in inner cities across the United States. The proliferation of such clinics exacerbates existing socioeconomic and racial disparities as they attempt to restrict access to maternal health and family-planning services.
Here is the bottom line: lack of access to safe abortion-care is a public health issue. By definition, pregnancy is a medical condition. We must acknowledge that pregnancy seriously alters a person’s physiology and can potentially put one’s life at risk. As with other health conditions, it requires timely treatment and medical attention. In a just society, the choice surrounding how to approach a medical condition should remain between a patient and their physician. Any pregnant patient should be afforded the dignity to access medically accurate information and weigh their options to reach the decision that is best for them and their needs. It is crucial we spread awareness about CPCs and the danger they pose to public health. Through activism in local communities, education initiatives, and a robust push for stricter CPC regulation, we can help ensure that informed medical decision-making is protected at each and every opportunity.