Up until last year I had never heard of a Crisis Pregnancy Center (CPC), which is funny, considering that there are 52 operating in Virginia, 38 of which receive state funding from ‘Choose Life’ license plates. In contrast, there are only 21 offices providing abortion services to the women of Virginia, 17 of which could be shut down if anti-choice zealots pursue targeted regulations through the state Board of Health. CPCs, for those who don’t know what they are, are unlicensed anti-choice, pro-abstinence facilities posing as medical clinics which exist solely to dissuade women from choosing abortion. In order to do so, they engage in misinformation and manipulation of women who may find themselves in a confusing and emotional situation. Frequently, it seems the pregnant woman’s ability to make her own informed choice is of little consequence, and they will do whatever they can to convince her to carry the pregnancy to term. Often CPCs list their services under “abortion” in the Yellow Pages so that women seeking abortions will end up going to them instead of a comprehensive women’s health clinic. Many of them advertise “post-abortion trauma syndrome” in their literature, saying that women may feel guilty or suicidal after having an abortion. One pamphlet used by CPCs entitled, “The Condom: Do Condoms Make Sex Safer?” states that “to date, there is no evidence that consistent use of condoms during oral sex reduces your chance of getting most STIs, including HIV” (Life Cycle Books). Much of what they do is steeped in a right-wing Christian agenda that strips women of reproductive choice and bodily autonomy.
I wanted to find out more about CPCs myself, from firsthand experience, so a friend and I decided to pose as a couple facing a possible unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. Since we attend James Madison University in Harrisonburg, we visited the local CPC (tagline: You Have More Choices than You Think), which was surreal—I was nervous that I’d slip up or seem suspicious, and I had no idea what to expect. I was assured during my training that my nervousness was actually a good thing, since any pregnant woman entering the clinic would probably be more freaked out than I was. Calligraphic bible verses and framed words like “peace” were the main decorative motif. Religious paraphernalia aside, the facility looked like a typical doctor’s office—reception window up front, pale green walls, and light-colored wicker furniture. Pictures of landscapes and flowers adorned the walls of the hallway. I had already been briefed on how things were going to go, since most CPCs follow the same basic formula: check in, pregnancy test, “options counseling,” and then results. After checking in I was required to fill out a form asking medical information, along with several probing questions about my views on abortion. For one such multiple choice question, the leading answers were “a) I think abortion is morally wrong, b) I’m not sure, and c) abortion is okay…” My male friend who had accompanied me to pose as my boyfriend was also required to fill out a form, since they had offered to counsel him as well. After a few minutes in the admittedly calming waiting room, their (licensed) nurse took me to the bathroom where I was instructed to pee in a cup, leave the urine sample on the bathroom counter, and then go into the room where I would be counseled.
The woman who counseled me came in a few minutes after I did and talked in a quiet soothing voice the entire time. Possibly the most infuriating thing about the visit was that she didn’t seem to actually know much about what I was asking her. Not only was she providing me with inaccurate medical information, she was mostly just reading it to me from various pamphlets and offering up vague anecdotes about women she had met. Additionally, the pamphlets did not provide much clearer information. “Before You Decide” contains what has become my favorite statistic of all time: “Use of the abortion pill has resulted in the death of a number of women due to sepsis.” I can’t believe that they would tout something so vague as a believable statistic—two is a number, but so is 200. Clearly the literature is meant only to scare women who seek abortion, as opposed to providing accurate medical information. As soon as she sat down the nurse fumbled with a “pregnancy wheel” in order to determine how far along I was (despite the fact that we didn’t even have the results of the test yet), and initially came to the conclusion, judging from my last period, that I was 10 weeks along before recanting and saying I was only seven weeks along. I asked her about the abortion pill (RU-486), and she told me that I was too far along to take it (I wasn’t – see heading What Is the Abortion Pill), and then pulled out another pamphlet, specific to RU-486. Opening the booklet to a picture of a forlorn looking blonde, she looked at me and said, “See? She looks sad… I think she really regrets her decision now.” The CPC places a heavy emphasis on the horrors of “post-abortion trauma syndrome,” which is evident in their campus advertising (“Had an abortion? Feeling scared? Nervous? Guilty? Suicidal?”), and their in-clinic talking points. She informed me that some women can have an abortion and seem totally fine, but 10 years down the road they’ll end up fraught with guilt and inner turmoil. She also said that women in her generation who had had abortions ended up with infertility later in life.
Eventually, the nurse came in to give me my results and answer any other medical questions I had. When I asked her about abortion side effects, she explained to me that most women hemorrhage after having abortions, that infertility and breast cancer are common side effects, and that the uterus is frequently perforated—all blatantly false statements. Later I asked whether or not they provide contraceptives, and I was handed a pamphlet about the inadequacies of condoms, and another pamphlet declaring that “the only safe sex is no sex until faithful married sex.” Abstinence only until marriage is a core value at CPCs, and after my negative pregnancy test result came back, my counselor said, “Now that you’re feeling so good about this result, why don’t we bring your boyfriend in to have a little discussion about your relationship?” She spent another 25 to 30 minutes with my friend and me pressuring us to promise abstinence, even telling us that having sex before marriage with someone other than your eventual spouse is akin to infidelity. At the end of this counseling session, my counselor informed me that she actually teaches a family life class at my university, which was not particularly reassuring about the unbiased quality of the education that myself and other students receive.
After my visit I flipped through all the literature that my friend and I had been given. The emotionally manipulative techniques are still unfathomable to me—I can’t believe that anyone would lie about someone else’s reproductive health just to push along their own political agenda. Not to mention, the paternalistic and misogynistic literature my male friend received was unbelievable. One pamphlet has an entire section on the apparent “Double Standard” of abortion—that when men push women to have abortions it’s seen as coercive and abusive, but when women choose abortion it’s an expression of freedom. Sorry to shake up your whole worldview, Life Cycle Books, but abortion is not about men, and not about the “Forgotten Fathers of Abortion.” It’s about women making very real medical decisions about their own body, and the fact that they should be able to do so without fearing stigmatization and shame from society. After this experience I began working with NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia on a campaign called “Support without Shame” because women need to have bodily autonomy and make crucial decisions for themselves. The Support without Shame campaign is not attempting to shut down CPCs. We just believe that all women facing unintended pregnancies deserve respect, freedom from shame and guilt, and access to unbiased medically accurate and science based information regarding ALL options. Women should be trusted with their own bodies. It’s not as if there are laws on the books constantly governing what men do with their bodies. At the CPC, I was stressed and upset as someone who wasn’t pregnant, and who was actually expecting to be manipulated and lied to. I can’t imagine what this would be like for an unsuspecting and vulnerable pregnant woman who believes what she is being told by people who can barely keep their own information straight.