Several weeks ago, John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” took a deep dive into “crisis pregnancy centers.” These controversial facilities often open near family planning clinics to attract pregnant women with free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds and then try to dissuade them from considering abortion. Many CPCs operate mobile clinics-on-wheels, which are permitted to park near abortion clinics in an attempt to intercept pregnant women to talk them out of their decision.
In the segment, Oliver ran through the types of false information that CPCs are legally permitted to tell their “patients”: that contraception doesn’t work, that abortion leads to breast cancer and infertility, that women who get abortions are at increased risk of suicide.
To demonstrate how easy it is to open a CPC ― how few qualifications you need and how little oversight there is ― Oliver opened a mobile crisis pregnancy center of his own: He called it “Vanned Parenthood.” “In this van we are allowed to tell women whatever dubious information comes into our heads,” he said on his HBO show. The segment brought national attention to this issue, but it left out one extremely important aspect. In addition to providing inaccurate health information to pregnant women, CPCs are teaching sex education in our children’s public schools.
“In addition to providing inaccurate health information to pregnant women, CPCs are teaching sex education in public schools.”
These centers have been teaching sex education in schools since the 1980s, instructing students that the only effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections is to abstain from sex until marriage. Condoms? Birth control? CPCs frequently say that they are ineffective and often fail. They’re going into classrooms and telling students the very same thing. Many centers falsely warn students that sex before marriage leads to psychological damage and even death. Yes, death.
We are both parents. Jaime Winfree is a former educator, and Andrea Swartzendruber is a reproductive health epidemiologist. We were not surprised that “Last Week Tonight” didn’t cover crisis pregnancy centers’ influence on middle school and high school students. Many parents aren’t aware, either.
Tamara Ashley, a parent in Lilburn, Georgia, learned only last summer that the local CPC was giving her daughter false information about sex and contraception in her public school health class. “I was horrified,” Ashley said, when asked to describe her reaction to the center’s methods. “She was taught that birth control doesn’t work… that if she had sex before marriage, she would regret it for the rest of her life and would no longer have the same value to a future spouse. No one would want her.”
“She was taught that birth control doesn’t work… that if she had sex before marriage, she would regret it for the rest of her life.”
In one exercise to which Ashley’s daughter’s class was subjected, the instructor gave each student a piece of individually wrapped candy and told them to suck on it and place it back in the wrapper. She then collected all of the candy and asked who wanted one, likening the spit-out candy to a girl who has had sex with multiple partners. “If you think that’s gross, imagine it’s someone’s vagina,” quipped the instructor.
These outrageous messages are most often focused on female students, but they are dangerous for all students. They can be especially harmful to sexually experienced students, who are told that those who have sex before marriage are used up, dirty and unworthy of future love. They’re harmful to survivors of sexual trauma, too: The centers’ presentation and curricula only serve to reinforce the shame that so many survivors feel, which creates obstacles to their healing. Due to the centers’ strict ideology, instructors completely neglect the needs of LGTBQ students and stigmatize same-sex relationships as deviant, leaving those students vulnerable to adverse mental and sexual health consequences.
Most crisis pregnancy centers are supported by national religious anti-abortion organizations that also have policies against promoting contraception ― and they often receive state and federal funds for sex education programs in public schools. In other words, taxpayers are footing the bill for this dangerous misinformation.
“Taxpayers are footing the bill for this dangerous misinformation.”
How did this happen? From 1996 to 2006, abstinence-only educators got substantial boosts in government funding. Although funding was reduced in 2010, the Trump administration just announced major increases under a program headed by Valerie Huber. Huber is the former CEO of a pro-abstinence organization and a Trump appointee to the Department of Health and Human Services. In our research, we found it difficult, if not impossible, to find out how much government funding crisis pregnancy centers receive. However, there is no doubt that CPCs use this funding to make their way into classrooms.
Scientific evidence shows that the centers’ abstinence-only approach is not effective. It does not delay when people begin sexual activity, nor does it reduce risky sexual behavior. In contrast, education approaches that comprehensively address risk reduction through abstinence, condoms, contraceptives, and communication and relationship skills are effective. They delay the age at which people first have sex, reduce the frequency of sex and the number of partners, increase condom and contraceptive use and prevent pregnancy. Nationally, major medical and public health organizations recommend comprehensive sex education.
Increasingly, CPCs offer limited medical services, such as ultrasounds, but their real focus is not students’ health. Their primary goals are to prevent women from having abortions and to evangelize their religious beliefs. They measure their results in babies saved, salvations and rededications to Christ ― not health outcomes.
“CPCs offer medical services, such as ultrasounds, but their real focus is not students’ health. Their primary goals are to prevent women from having abortions and to evangelize their religious beliefs.”
The CPC that has been teaching sex education in Jaime and Tamara’s public school is the Obria Medical Clinic of Lawrenceville, Georgia (previously the Pregnancy Resource Center of Gwinnett). It has been teaching sex education in their district for nearly 16 years. The center is so student-focused that its website provides driving directions from each of the district’s high schools. Parents are not informed that an external religious group is pushing their ideology to students in their public schools.
The two women co-founded a community group, Gwinnett Citizens for Comprehensive Sex Education, and created an online petition, which urges the school board to replace the current curriculum with one that is safe and effective for all students, including trauma survivors, racially and ethnically diverse populations, sexually experienced students and LGBTQ students.
Student comments on the petition reveal harm caused by the center’s instruction and the curriculum the school system continues to defend. One student wrote, “Abstinence-only education was extremely damaging to me and many of my peers. Because of this, many of us did not recognize the importance of birth control and basic barrier methods for STD protection, and this led to issues down the road. Many of our classmates were pregnant in high school. Many had abortions. Many had more than one.”
A victim of sexual abuse shared, “I was assaulted weekly by a peer… my attacker made sure I knew I was worthless, used and unlovable. I found that message reinforced by activities in sex education in Gwinnett County.”
“It’s not just Gwinnett County, and it’s not just Georgia.”
It’s not just Gwinnett County, and it’s not just Georgia: Parents in New York, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas and Missouri ― and more ― have organized against the CPCs that are giving public school children misinformation about their own bodies.
Every parent should take a good look at their kids’ sex education curriculum and know who is instructing their children. If you don’t like what you see, you have the power to change it. We must demand that students receive accurate information taught by credible teachers in the schools we fund with our tax dollars. To protect the lifelong health of students across the country, we need to get crisis pregnancy centers out of sex education in schools and implement approaches that work.
Andrea Swartzendruber, Ph.D., MPH, is an assistant professor in the epidemiology and biostatistics department in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia. Jaime Winfree, M.Ed., is a parent, former educator and co-founder of Gwinnett Citizens for Comprehensive Sex Education.