Payne McMillan, a pro-choice activist at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, recently wrote a letter to his student paper to spread the word about crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). Those right-wing organizations are notorious for spreading misinformation about women’s health, and McMillan wanted to warn his fellow students that the CPC in their own town wasn’t actually an unbiased source of medical information.
“There’s a crisis pregnancy center in Northfield, and a lot of students don’t really know what it is,” McMillan, who works for the Students for Reproductive Health group on campus, explained in an interview with ThinkProgress. “They assume they can go there for all information if they have an unintended pregnancy. I’ve heard some people say, ‘Oh, it’s great that there’s an abortion clinic in town that’s convenient’ — and of course, that’s not the case at all.”
In his letter to the editor, McMillan explained that the Northfield Crisis Pregnancy Center doesn’t offer abortion referrals, doesn’t employ medical professionals, and will actively try to dissuade young women from choosing to end a pregnancy. He recommended that if students want the full range of reproductive health information available to them, they should consider traveling to the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic, which is 30 minutes away.
Five days after his letter was published, McMillan received a response from the Northfield Crisis Pregnancy Center. The organization’s director, Liz Blanchard, sent him an email entitled “Put on your big girl panties” — which referred to him as “Ms. McMillan” — and advised him to drop out of school:
I would love for you to look into the eyes of a woman who has suffered for years after her decision to have an abortion and tell her that what she feels isn’t real…you have no idea. Also, you must not know what the word CRISIS means. Please Google it and you will understand that CRISIS PREGNANCY is not ambiguous — not to women who are experiencing a crisis pregnancy. Maybe you should Google “ambiguous” also. The next thing you should do is drop out of school and ask for a refund, because clearly you’ve spent a lot of money on an education and you haven’t learned a thing about research. What you have written is ignorant, uninformed, unethical and would not be considered a reliable resource by any professor I know.
If you want to stand for something Ms. McMillan, be prepared to defend what you stand for with legitimate answers. […] Put on your big girl panties and come talk to me.
“I was really appalled. It seemed very unprofessional to me — at first, I thought the email was spam,” McMillan said. “I got over her calling me Ms. McMillan, because I don’t really care if someone thinks I’m a woman. But I did think it was kind of ironic she was criticizing my research skills, since the fact that I’m a man is something she could have researched really easily.”
Linnea House, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, told ThinkProgress that she was “astounded” when she read the email that McMillan received. NARAL does a lot of work to investigate and expose CPCs, but House said the organization has never received this type of response directed at an activist. She noted that it displays a “lack of compassion and professionalism” for any individual who disagrees with the CPC’s point of view.
“If she is willing to write down her juvenile thoughts to someone, what is she saying to young women and men who don’t know that she is not a medical professional?” House said in reference to the CPC’s director. “This type of behavior would be unacceptable from any type of medical or nonprofit professional.”
The staff at Northfield have not yet responded to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.
McMillan acknowledged that he understands why his article may have inspired such an emotional response from the local CPC. The employees there likely really do believe in what they’re doing, and his letter probably seemed like slander to them. But McMillan maintains that college students deserve to know about what he believes are unethical practices at CPCs, and says he was making a broader point about the extensive body of research that’s documented those incidences at CPCs. Employees at these right-wing organizations have been caught on tape telling women that birth control is an “early abortion,” condoms have holes in them, and abortion causes depression and infertility.
“The things I wrote in my article don’t all pertain to the Northfield Crisis Pregnancy Center,” McMillan noted, who read Northfield’s informational brochures to check them against NARAL’s previous research in this area. “But there are over 90 CPCs in the state — and around the country, there are at least four times as many CPCs as there are abortion providers. People really don’t know what they’re getting into when they go to one. So it’s important that students know how to recognize CPCs, not just in Northfield, but anywhere. It’s not like after college you’re going to stop having crisis pregnancies.”
McMillan told ThinkProgress that he’s been thinking about his exchange with Northfield Crisis Pregnancy Center a lot. As the email he received has been made public, he’s concerned it will end up having a negative effect on the staff there.
“I’m worried that Liz is going to get a little harassed. I do feel kind of sad about that — I don’t know if Northfield has been getting a ton of prank phone calls or emails this week. If they are, you know, I’m sorry about that,” he said. “But what has been nice about her email getting so much attention is that it’s given people a chance to read my letter. A lot more people have been educated about CPCs because of how ridiculous that response was, so in that sense, this has been a really good thing.”
The college student hasn’t yet responded to the email he received, and isn’t sure if that would be productive. But he said he was “moved” by the CPC director’s conviction to help local women in difficult situations, so he made a donation to Hope Center, a safe home and outreach center for victims of domestic violence, in her honor.