I found the so-called “Crisis Pregnancy Center” on Google Maps listed along with Planned Parenthood when I searched for “pregnancy care.” Inspired by California’s recent banning of such centers, I wanted to see how they would treat a pregnant nineteen-year-old, unready for motherhood but seeking out options. I called on a whim in search of information, but when a voice actually answered the phone, I sprung into character, making an appointment for the following day.
Pretending to be pregnant during my appointment was a strange experience. In the waiting room of the Mother of Life center I was surrounded by pictures of smiling families, knitted baby hats, and stories told from the perspective of unborn children. While there, I collected pamphlet after pamphlet on “decision making”— most with pictures of fetuses and warnings of “post-abortion syndrome.” A poster of a concerned woman stared at me from across the room, and a picture of a 10-week-old fetus (the age of my fictional pregnancy) was placed on the table between the counselor and me.
On October 9, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law requiring centers like the one I visited to provide information on a full range of services for pregnant women, including abortion, as well as to disclose if there are no medical professionals on staff. These “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) — also known as pregnancy resource centers (PRCs) — are often operated by anti-choice organizations using conservative Christian rhetoric. NARAL Pro-Choice America put it simply in their yearlong investigation into CPCs in California: “CPCs lie.”
According to NARAL, there are around 4,000 CPCs in the United States offering pregnancy and STD testing, ultrasounds, and “counseling.” Many of these centers pose as legitimate medical clinics offering a full range of care options, but exist almost solely to counsel women out of having abortions. There have been many reports of crisis pregnancy centers forcing women to watch films and slideshows, hold baby dolls, and look at sonograms of their fetuses, all techniques favored by anti-choice organizers and politicians. CPCs are often located near legitimate women’s health and abortion clinics. They offer free pregnancy or STD testing to lure women through their doors and away from these more legitimate resources. Alarmingly, these clinics now actually outnumber legitimate medical providers 3-1, and thus pose a serious threat to women’s right to choose. They have been on NARAL’s and other pro-choice organizations’ radars for a while, but legal action against their harmful practices has become an even more important issue with the recent demonization of Planned Parenthood. The “other options” often heralded by right-wing politicians and pundits are crisis pregnancy centers. So, eliminating Planned Parenthood and other legitimate options would force women into this kind of subpar, even pseudo medical care. Forced closures of legitimate clinics have also led women to the outstretched arms of pro-life rhetoricians.
During my hour at the Mother of Life center in Providence, I was told within the first fifteen minutes that it was a pro-life operation — something unusual for this type of clinic. I was counseled on the possible health risks of having an abortion. A pamphlet I received cited an increase in breast cancer among abortion recipients, a statement that has been proven false by numerous medical studies. The last paragraph in a section entitled “Spiritual Risks” states, “Choosing to abort violates God’s perfect plan for you and this unborn child. When choices are made that only God should make, there are consequences.” Veiled threats against physical and mental health are a common theme amongst the pamphlets I collected.
The words “post-abortion syndrome” appeared in almost every pamphlet I received with varying degrees of explanation. One said I would feel sick for a few days following the procedure. Others emphasized the mental toll of abortion, saying that the procedure may cause depression and post-traumatic stress disorder — a claim that has been denied by the American Psychological Association.
These threats and deceptions are why the California law is so important. It prevents scared and vulnerable women from being coerced into pregnancies they do not want.
Still, many argue that California’s law begins to infringe on the right to free speech. Two CPCs — both of which are affiliated with churches — have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the California attorney general’s office. The lawsuit accuses the bill of violating the rights to freedom of speech and religion, and seeks an injunction to prevent the law’s enforcement. The two CPCs — A Woman’s Friend Pregnancy Resource Clinic in Marysville and Crisis Pregnancy Center in Redding — argue that the law forces them “to speak messages that they have not chosen, with which they do not agree, and that distract and detract from the messages they have chosen to speak.”
This is not the first time clinics have fought back against laws seeking to curb their coercion. Backers of the law argue that only statewide intervention can prevent these clinics from blocking these bills on the local level, and there are years of evidence to support this claim. Local Law 17 was passed in New York City in 2011 and included several modest disclosure requirements mandating “limited service centers” (CPCs) to post signs around their offices stating whether there were medical professionals on staff and whether abortions were provided at the facility. A federal district judge blocked the law, which was very similar to the one passed on the statewide level in California.
In that case, Judge William H. Pauley stated that the law’s definition of commercial speech was “unconstitutionally vague.” Local Law 17 stated that if a facility “has the appearance of a licensed medical facility,” it is required to inform patrons of its status as a crisis pregnancy center, and that it is not a licensed medical provider. In issuing his preliminary injunction, Judge Pauley agreed that the CPCs might have a good argument that Local Law 17 unnecessarily infringes on their First Amendment rights. Judge Pauley recognized that the “prevention of deception related to reproductive health care is of paramount importance.” However, he found that Local Law 17’s modest prescriptions were not “narrowly tailored” enough to further the goal of reducing deception.
There may be room for a similar argument in California. NARAL is sending out petitions and fundraising materials and gearing up for a fight. The organization argues that there needs to be a certain amount of “truth in advertising” when it comes to CPCs. The law in California — just like the laws before it across the country — aims to ensure that the consumer understands what services she is receiving at a CPC, it does not prevent the CPC from delivering its anti-choice message.
My experience at a “crisis pregnancy center” was a fortunate and singular one. I was not desperate, and I knew what tricks they might employ. But I was also visiting a center in Providence, Rhode Island. I am not in Texas, where a woman had a sonogram machine pushed onto her as she protested. I am not in California, where a woman was told that an IUD was her baby. The woman I spoke to was compassionate about my troubles. She did not pretend to be a doctor by wearing a white coat, and she did not try to convince me I would miscarry on my own. She did, however, give me literature demonizing abortion, convincing me a 3-week-old fetus could feel pain, and maligning women who choose to exercise their legal rights to terminate their pregnancies.