When you think about states where women struggle to access reproductive health care, California certainly isn’t the first one that comes to mind. As GOP-controlled states across the country advance dozens of abortion restrictions, the Golden State has pursued the opposite approach, taking unprecedented steps to expand the pool of abortion providers and preserve insurance coverage for abortion.
But that doesn’t mean the anti-choice community isn’t making inroads in other ways. According to a new report released by NARAL Pro-Choice California, the state is grappling with a rise in “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) — right-wing organizations that masquerade as reproductive health clinics in order to dissuade pregnant women from having an abortion.
CPCs advertise themselves as viable alternatives to other women’s health clinics. Their staff members often wear white coats and their waiting rooms look like any other doctor’s office. But these centers are actually strategic players in the anti-choice agenda. They don’t tend to employ medical professionals and don’t offer the full range of reproductive health services; instead, they largely provide biased counseling designed to convince women to continue their pregnancies.
“This is a very underhanded way that the anti-choice movement is able to make progress and interfere with women’s health decisions in a state like California, where they can’t do it through our legislature,” Rebecca Griffin, the assistant director of California Programs at NARAL, told ThinkProgress. “We’ve seen that they’re proliferating here and definitely making some real serious efforts to target women who are seeking abortions with their deceptive advertisements.”
Across the country, as the number of abortion clinics has dwindled, there’s actually been a rise in the network of CPCs. Anti-choice organizations say that more than 3,500 crisis pregnancy centers are currently in operation.
NARAL Pro-Choice America has conducted undercover investigations in 10 different states to document what happens when women facing an unintended pregnancy find themselves in one of those fake clinics. In California specifically, the organization trained six investigators who visited 45 centers in 19 counties — more than 25 percent of the estimated 167 different CPCs in the state.
One of those investigators, 19-year-old volunteer Cristina — who asked not to be identified by her real name — attended counseling sessions at dozens of CPCs, and said she was amazed they all ended up blending together. “It’s like everyone was trained by one person. I heard the same thing over and over again,” Cristina said.
When Cristina told CPC employees that she was unexpectedly pregnant and didn’t think she wanted to have a baby, she always heard the same information about how abortion is supposedly linked to breast cancer, depression, and infertility. One employee told her that ending the pregnancy might puncture her uterus and close her Fallopian tubes, preventing her from having any more children in the future. One counselor asked her how she would have felt if her own mother had aborted her. Another told her she should “stop whoring around.”
“It was so hurtful. Sitting there in those centers, I was realizing that this could be me — I could be a young girl who is disoriented and happens to stumble across this place and I think it’s a real clinic,” Cristina said. “Even if you’re not looking for a CPC, you might walk in there by accident.”
CPCs are strategic in location; they’re often situated right next to a real abortion clinic, or right across the street from a high school or college. In California, according to Cristina, right-wing clinics target minority communities and tend to set up shop in areas where people may only speak Spanish. It can be really hard to tell the difference, especially for women in vulnerable situations who are eager to visit the first health clinic they can find.
“We think it creates an interesting dynamic here. People are lucky enough to live in a state that has good protections and good coverage for abortion and prenatal care, but aren’t necessarily going to get to the right place,” Griffin said.
Abortion opponents have pursued a similar online strategy. When you search for “abortion clinic,” advertisements for crisis pregnancy centers are often some of the first to pop up, prompting reproductive rights groups to lobby Google and Yahoo to crack down on the groups.
And even women who aren’t necessarily interested in having an abortion may receive inaccurate information at CPCs from employees who aren’t actually trained in reproductive health. Cristina asked for an ultrasound at several centers; at two of them, the staff incorrectly identified her IUD as her “baby.” NARAL has also documented repeated instances of CPC employees misleading women about their risk of miscarriage, telling them they don’t need to make a decision about their pregnancy right away because they have up to a 50 percent chance of miscarrying — even though medical professionals put that risk closer to 15 percent.
“I have heard anecdotally from public health officials about problems with women who thought they were getting prenatal care, but then were dropped by CPCs once it was too late for them to have an abortion,” Griffin said. “We do feel like it’s a real public health issue here, where women aren’t getting the good prenatal care they need and don’t necessarily know otherwise until they’re far into their pregnancies.”
Despite the well-documented issues at crisis pregnancy centers, many of them are actually the recipients of state funding. Some states designate direct funding for CPCs in their budgets, while others indirectly support them with the proceeds from “Choose Life” license plates. This week, NPR reported that some states are funneling money to CPCs even as they cut funding for Planned Parenthood. Texas, for instance, continues to defund family planning services at the national women’s health organization, yet appropriated more than $5 million over two fiscal years for CPCs.
“Regardless of one’s position on abortion, we can all agree that women should not be given medical misinformation,” Amy Everitt, the state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, concluded in an op-ed published on Thursday. “It is wrong to lie to women, especially when those lies can have serious health consequences.”