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Artificial lifeline: exposing the dangers of crisis pregnancy centers in the Deep South

Jan. 24, 2019
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Abortion has been a difficult subject long before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, particularly so in the American South. In a region where Republican and religious values rule, often more so than legal regulation, getting an abortion has become increasingly difficult in these southern states, despite the procedure being entirely legal nationwide. If Roe v. Wade were overturned, abortion would automatically become illegal in four states: Louisiana, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Mississippi, two of which are located in the American Southeast. 

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the ever-evolving abortion debate is the growing number of “fake abortion clinics” in the United States. Yup—contrary to popular belief, a vast majority of the facilities masquerading as women’s health facilities in the USA are not even true facilities at all. According to a recent study, there are close to 4,000 fake women's health centers all over the country and only 780 real abortion providers. 

These facilities are often called crisis pregnancy centers or CPCs. While the name sounds legitimate, these fake clinics do not provide comprehensive reproductive health care. Rather, they use tactics including emotional manipulation and the promise of free ultrasounds and pregnancy support. Once women arrive at these facilities, they are often guilted into forgoing an abortion and instead putting the child up for adoption or keeping it themselves, even if they are enduring a dangerous living situation or the child is a result of rape or incest. 

CPCs began popping up across the United States and specifically in the American South when anti-abortion groups were searching for a “friendlier” approach to preventing abortions. The Christian Action Council, later renamed CareNet, now has more than 1,100 affiliated fake clinics in its network. Because these clinics are considered religious outreach programs, they do not have to meet medical board requirements, and are currently protected under First Amendment rights for Freedom of Religion.

It’s becoming difficult to distinguish between true abortion clinics and CPCs. Many women walk into a CPC unaware that they are being given advice by non-medical, anti-choice personnel, as CPCs often set up shop near true abortion clinics and hand out anti-abortion literature to encourage women to visit these fake facilities. Some of their strategies include the following: using false advertising, partnering with protestors to intimidate women entering legitimate clinics, and perhaps most frighteningly, not following HIPPA regulations.

As I live in the Deep South—Alabama, specifically—I decided to reach out to some of the CPCs in my area. Alabama made headlines in November of 2018 for passing an amendment to reform the state’s policy on recognition of the rights of the unborn, with 59 percent of Alabamians voting in favor of it. The amendment ensures state funds will not go to legitimate abortion clinics or abortion care. The amendment was written by Rep. Matt Fridy, R-Montevallo, and sponsored by the Alliance for a Pro-Life Alabama.

I contacted a variety of CPC facilities within my zip code under a fake email address, posing as a young woman in need of an abortion who was curious whether these organizations could offer me any resources. After explaining that I was in an unfit position to raise a child and asking about my options, I was steered away from having an abortion, offered false information about the “side effects” of having an abortion, and continuously pressured to come into a facility for an in-person meeting and free sonogram or ultrasound.   

One particularly disturbing letter came from the Pro-Life of Tuscaloosa website: 

“We are sorry you are in a situation that you feel like you have to kill your baby through abortion.  Think about if you had unlimited money & time, good supportive relationships, you had completed your schooling, and you had a stable job & life; would you really be considering an abortion? If your answer was no, then you have just taken an important step to realizing that your baby is not the problem, it is the situation you are in.”

Other clinics I contacted assumed I had already taken mifepristone (the first pill taken when an abortion is performed) and had not yet taken misoprostol (the second pill taken at home six to eight hours after), and suggested coming into their clinics to have my “abortion reversed.” These claims of being able to reverse an abortion which has already been initiated speak to the abundance of false information created by pro-life groups, as these claims haven’t been proven in reliable medical studies, and they haven’t been tested for safety, effectiveness, or side effects.

Collectively, the clinics I contacted made two things quite clear: they wanted me to come into their clinic, and they would not reveal whether or not they provide abortions. With the overarching goal of confusing vulnerable, pregnant women, CPCs’ refusal to be upfront about patients’ options effectively aims to prevent women from getting abortions entirely.

Luckily, there are some advocacy groups working to fight the growing number of CPCs in the United States. Katie Stack, founder of The Crisis Project, often visits CPCs across the country posing as a woman seeking an abortion, and records some of the disturbing, dishonest information she’s given. Stack was inspired to start the project after visiting a CPC as a teenager. Her experience was dismal: 

“I was cautioned that abortions cause breast cancer, even though the National Cancer Institute has found serious flaws in all research that suggests so. I was warned that I would inevitably suffer from post-abortion stress syndrome, even though the American Psychological Association says there is no evidence of increased mental health problems among women who have an abortion in the first trimester. I was told that I would not hear this information from doctors, because doctors make money performing abortions and would lie about the procedure’s risks."

Groups like The Crisis Project—as well as the general public—need to make information regarding the dangers of CPCs readily available. As more and more clinics open annually, CPCs stand at the forefront of a pro-life agenda that specializes in capitalizing on vulnerable women. In a conservative Alabama where Planned Parenthood continues to face roadblocks in staying open and operating, it is more important than ever before that we allow women to make their own choices surrounding pregnancy.