Why a Pro-Choice Activist Went to a Crisis Pregnancy Clinic (and What She Found There)

"Want to go to a crisis pregnancy clinic?" I asked my husband one night during my first trimester of pregnancy.

"No," he said flatly. "Why would we?"

That was a fair question. Crisis pregnancy clinics, or CPCs, promote themselves as unbiased resources for women that are unsure about continuing a pregnancy, but many CPCs misleadingly imply that they are staffed by licensed medical professionals and distribute materials that distort the efficacy of contraception and the safety of abortion. Despite this, they have won the praise of anti-choice politicians and receive public funds in some states -- most recently, the Ohio budget allocated money to fund CPCs

As reproductive rights activist, I believe that seeing anti-choice tactics firsthand can help me be more effective in my work. But while I wanted to see what a CPC was like, I didn't want to go in à la Live Action, with a hidden camera and a desire to create an edited smear job. Rather, as I explained to my husband, I wanted to educate myself about this part of the anti-choice movement.

The clinic that we went to in Washington, D.C. was quiet when we entered. A woman was behind the counter, and when I said I had an appointment, she took me into an office for an intake interview while my husband stayed in the waiting room.

During the interview, the woman -- who never told me her name -- asked about my religion; employment and marital status; thoughts on abortion, parenting, and adoption; who would help me care for a baby; and if my parents were supportive. From her questions, I got the impression that this CPC primarily served younger women and teens that had financial and relationship concerns. At the end of the interview, I was asked to sign the intake form, which stated in fine print that the people at the CPC were trained crisis counselors -- but also that none of them were licensed counselors. (This distinction has personal relevance. I am trained in crisis counseling but am not a licensed counselor; indeed, the organization that trained me would not let me identify myself a "counselor.")

After I took a pregnancy test she provided, my husband joined us, and we talked a little more about our worries regarding pregnancy: namely, that since I was on medications for health conditions (which was true), we were concerned about any effect on a developing fetus. The woman said that the clinic was not "abortion minded" and couldn't provide health advice, and recommended we see her own OB/GYN. She also gave us pamphlets about abortion and adoption and showed us the free toys, baby clothes, and maternity clothes. She said she hoped we would make the right decision and that she'd be praying for us.

When we got home, I looked through those pamphlets, as well as ones that my husband had picked up in the waiting room. The written material made it clear that despite the woman's friendly demeanor, this CPC used plenty of biased scare tactics.

Some of the most sensational material had nothing to do with abortion. A pamphlet about condoms presented a host of grim statistics about how condoms were ineffective for preventing STIs and pregnancy, but made no distinction between the rates for perfect use and regular use. The brochure "Sex Was Never Meant to Kill You" equated having sex with low self-esteem, bitterness, depression, and rejection. Saving sex for the wedding day, however, resulted in the "ultimate freedom: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually." Readers were advised not to "frequent intimate places" or "date MORONS!" (capitalization theirs).

The abortion-related material contended that "abortion is no solution at all," that it could lead to "thoughts of suicide," and that "it takes around ten years for women to recover emotionally" from abortion. One pamphlet claimed that abortion makes women infertile, despite the fact that there is no proven relationship between abortion and subsequent infertility. Another heavily implied that there was a connection between abortion and breast cancer, even though an extensive review into the subject conducted by the National Cancer Institute found that there was no correlation between induced abortion and an increased breast cancer risk.

I knew going in that I would not receive any blatantly pro-choice information, but I have to admit, I was still shocked by just how medically inaccurate these materials were, particularly when it is possible to receive reputable, nonpartisan information about abortion and contraception. Moreover, the black-and-white world presented by the CPC and its materials had almost nothing in common with the realities of the women that came there for assistance and understanding. But if I were a teenager or young woman with little idea of what my options were, I wouldn't necessarily have questioned the validity of the CPC's materials. After all, they were provided by a clinic that advertises itself as providing accurate information and compassionate care. The very fact that the CPC identified as faith-based might even cause me to put more trust in them; after all, that term has connotations of support, respect, and empathy -- not judgment and fear-mongering.

Over the past several years, communities around the country have tried to force CPCs to clarify what kinds of services they provide. While few of these efforts have been successful, in May Democrats in both the House and Senate introduced legislation aimed at holding CPCs accountable for deceptive advertising. The legislation's outcome is far from certain, but given this summer's anti-choice activity, I'm not feeling optimistic.

But I hope I'm wrong. Because the tactics employed by CPCs, from the benign ones I found to more aggressive methods, are dangerous. That false "counselors" are comfortable lying to women looking for help is evidence of how badly CPCs abuse the trust of those it purports to care about. That these clinics receive state money and political support to spread those lies shameful. Women deserve better.