by Melissa Reed
RALEIGH, N.C.--Across the country, anti-choice activists are working to limit women’s reproductive health options by restricting access to abortion and birth control. In addition to legislative action, one branch of this movement is targeting pregnant women through crisis pregnancy centers (CPC).
These anti-choice organizations present themselves as a source of neutral information and advice. In fact the CPC movement uses lies and scare tactics to prevent women from making informed choices about abortion. In North Carolina there are at least 70 of these anti-choice "pregnancy centers."
During the summer of 2003, volunteers from NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina called and visited 10 crisis pregnancy centers in the Triangle, Charlotte, Triad and Wilmington areas as part of an investigation of the CPC’s tactics. They presented themselves as women who thought they might be pregnant and were considering abortion.
During the course of the investigation, they discovered that CPCs provided false information about the medical consequences of abortion.
* One Raleigh CPC told an investigator that infertility was a common side effect of abortion. Studies show no increased risk of fertility problems or poor birth outcomes for women who have first-trimester abortions.
* A CPC in Asheboro told an investigator that having an abortion could increase the risk of breast cancer up to 800 percent. According to the National Cancer Institute, reliable scientific evidence shows no link between abortion and breast cancer.
The CPCs also misled women about birth control and emergency contraception.
* A Burlington CPC told an investigator that all condoms are defective and have slots and holes in them.
* Another Raleigh CPC told an investigator that emergency contraception "the morning-after pill" was not available in the United States.
CPCs attempted to discredit other, more reliable, sources of information about abortion as well.
* In Salisbury, a CPC told an investigator that she would give her "factual truths" about abortion that were concealed by "society" and the "news media."
* A CPC in Gaston County told an investigator that "doctors won’t tell you everything you need to know" about the side effects of abortion.
Most CPCs provide free pregnancy tests, and some centers also offer free ultrasounds. These services lend legitimacy to the centers, and may attract low-income women without access to medical care. However, the centers are not medically licensed. The pregnancy tests given by centers are usually over-the-counter tests, and results are interpreted by volunteer "counselors" with no formal medical training.
In some cases, investigators reported that CPC staff members deliberately manipulated the administration of the pregnancy test, withholding the results of the test in order to produce anxiety in the client. When investigators asked about other reproductive health services, such as sexually transmitted disease testing or birth control pills, the CPCs responded that they would not or could not provide information about these services.
Concerns over the "scientific accuracy of information" provided by these pregnancy centers have recently been raised in a national report prepared for Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA).
The false information given out by CPCs is especially damaging because the pregnancy centers advertise themselves as providing unbiased information to women in need of advice. Of the centers contacted during NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina’s investigation, only half identified themselves as anti-choice during phone conversations. Phone book listings separate CPCs from abortion providers by listing them under "Abortion Alternatives" with a header specifying that they counsel against abortion.
However, many CPCs are also listed under the more neutral-sounding "Pregnancy Counseling" listing, where they may be grouped with Planned Parenthood and other medically licensed facilities. Because there are so many more CPCs than abortion providers in North Carolina (over 70 CPCs versus only 16 abortion providers), in some areas these fake clinics may be the only local option for women seeking information.
In addition to concerns about the services and counseling provided, the funding of CPCs is also problematic. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, in 2004, over $82,000 in taxpayer money from a discretionary fund was funneled to Hope Pregnancy Care Center, a CPC in Stokes County to pay off its mortgage.
Some crisis pregnancy centers provide an honest and supportive setting for pregnant women to discuss reproductive options. However, many do not. The staff entice women to the center under the pretense of providing information, then use anti-abortion propaganda, misinformation and intimidation to pressure women to carry pregnancies to term.
By making women aware of the deception practiced by the fake clinic movement, they will be less likely to take false information at face value. The most direct way of counteracting the CPC's misinformation campaign is to educate women about their full-range of reproductive health care options, including abortion.
Reed is the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina.