Loving Mothers? The Open Question of Crisis Pregnancy Centers
WE can help.
On the corner of Whitney and Trumbull Street, these words hang on a green sign over the entrance to an office building. They point to the Saint Gianna Pregnancy Resource Center in the basement.
Descend the stairs outside the brick building to the basement and you’ll find yourself in a small entryway. On a rod lining the wall of this entrance hang baby clothes—full outfits, many with the tags still on. Below them, baby shoes are placed in a line from one side of the entryway all the way to the other.
Walk through another door and you’ll enter a small room. Children’s toys are scattered all over, on chairs and piled against the walls for lack of space. In the next room, ten children play under the supervision of a volunteer. Their mothers are meeting in a different room. Crosses hang on the blue walls, and there’s a table with flyers with titles like “How to Deal with Post-Abortion Trauma,” “Abortion Pill Reversal,” and “Adoption.”
The Saint Gianna Center is one of four thousand crisis pregnancy centers across the country. CPCs, as they are called, are pro-life institutions that offer guidance and other resources to women dealing with unplanned pregnancies. Half a mile down the road from Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, the center offers pregnancy testing, referrals to financial, medical, and housing aid, information on adoption, and parenting classes. Saint Gianna is only open Saturday mornings – since its part-time volunteers work the rest of the week.
“The center was founded to be an alternative for women in New Haven and the surrounding areas, when they are faced with a pregnancy that’s unplanned or a pregnancy that they need a lot of help with, when they don’t want to choose an abortion,” said Carolyn Falcigno, Executive Director of the Saint Gianna Center, in an interview with The Politic.
“We’re not trying to talk anyone out of anything,” she said. “We just want to help women make informed decisions.”
The Saint Gianna Center grounds its mission in Christian values. “Loving Mothers and Their Children!” is its motto, bolded on its pamphlets and brochures. Its website states, “A majority of women considering abortion feel coerced to ‘choose’ to abort their unborn child. Don’t be coerced into doing something you don’t want to do – something that is harmful!”
The website lists alternatives to abortion like marriage, single parenting, and adoption. In the event that a woman has already undergone an abortion, however, the center “recognizes that abortion is a traumatic event and provides an individualized program to assist clients in their recovery.”
The website states, “Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unplanned pregnancy, feelings of being exploited and used, guilt and shame are common results of having sexual relations before marriage.”
“Education is the key in ending abortion,” Falcigno told me. “Lots of people just don’t know what to expect with pregnancy and parenting.”
“It’s up to the women to move forward with their lives,” she said. “Most importantly, we’re here to help.”
Falcigno has been with the Saint Gianna Center since its beginnings. She started meeting with “a group of pro-lifers” in 2010, and the center opened its doors on December 12, 2012. The date is special for the group because it is the Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day. In the Catholic tradition, the Lady of Guadalupe is the patron of the Americas and the protector of the unborn.
Despite its emphasis on Christian faith, the Saint Gianna Center is an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit and is not affiliated with any particular church. While Saint Gianna serves people of all religions, churches often direct pregnant women to the center and lead fundraisers.
Crisis Pregnancy Centers like the Saint Gianna Center work under different governing entities. While some are run independently, many exist under umbrella organizations such as Heartbeat International, Care Net, and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA). Heartbeat International states that its vision is “to make abortion unwanted today and unthinkable for future generations.” The organization provides resources and training to people who want to start pro-life pregnancy centers in their own communities.
Both Care Net and Heartbeat International offer services to low-income women. The Underserved Outreach Initiative, started by Care Net in 2003, has developed fifteen CPCs in thirteen cities.
“In many communities, abortion providers outnumber pregnancy centers by a ratio of five to one,” Care Net claims on its website. It cites the statistic that “combined, African American and Latina women account for only 27% of the female population in the U.S., yet they undergo 59% of all abortions.”
“Without access to the important resources provided by pregnancy centers,” Care Net explains, “many women in urban communities are heavily influenced by a devaluation of the life of their unborn child and a perceived lack of support should they choose to give birth.”
With their guidance and resources, pregnancy centers may seem like the perfect place for women dealing with unplanned pregnancies to consider their options. Pro-choice activists, however, have criticized them for dissuading women from seeking abortions by sharing false information and hindering informed reproductive choices. “CPCs claim to have the best interests of women at heart of their operations, but they shame and mislead women about their health options in an effort to scare them away from choosing abortion,” James Owens, States Communications Director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in an interview with The Politic.
NARAL Pro-Choice America advocates for reproductive justice with a mission to “support and protect, as a fundamental right and value, a woman’s freedom to make personal decisions regarding the full range of reproductive choices.” In his conversation with The Politic, Owens often referenced a 2015 report on CPCs that NARAL released after leading undercover investigations of facilities in eleven states.
According to the report, Connecticut had twenty-eight crisis pregnancy centers in 2015, but only six abortion clinics. CPCs exist in every state, with over 4,000 across the country. California and Texas have the most CPCs of any state, with more than 160 each.
According to NARAL, CPCs often use false advertising to persuade women to visit. Some list themselves in phone books or online directories under “abortion” or “abortion services” to attract women seeking the procedure. Others offer pregnancy tests or other services to attract clients.
“If you’re seeking abortion care, it’s usually something you weren’t planning to seek. CPCs find women in these targeted windows of people looking for health care, and inject themselves into women’s personal choices,” he said.
Crisis pregnancy centers often advertise themselves as accredited medical facilities, and women may believe they are meeting healthcare professionals when they enter crisis pregnancy centers. There have even been cases where people working in CPCs wear lab coats to act as doctors when providing ultrasounds.
“You don’t need a medical licence to have an ultrasound,” Owens said. “[CPCs] are usually very crafty not to get into any legal issues. They’re letting people infer that they are able to provide license-sanctioned medical care.”
In the states that require ultrasounds before women undergo abortions, CPCs convince women that a visit is a valid means to satisfying this requirement. But CPCs are not under any legal obligation to truthfully relay the results of the ultrasound. NARAL has found instances where CPCs lie to women about how far along they are in their pregnancies during ultrasounds. The farther along a woman is in her pregnancy, the harder and more costly it is to receive an abortion.
Once women enter a CPC, they may face what NARAL describes as “a variety of coercive and offensive tactics intended to prevent them from exercising their right to choose.” These tactics include showing women “shocking” images of fetuses or exaggerating the side effects of abortion.
Some centers warn that abortion often leads to death, infertility, or miscarriages during future pregnancies. Some women are told that abortions can lead to mental health problems like “post-abortion syndrome” or “post-abortion stress,” which are not recognized by the American Psychological Society or the American Psychiatric Association. And although the National Cancer Institute has found no correlation between abortions and breast cancer, CPCs often perpetuate that myth.
Though the Saint Gianna Center admits its pro-life bent, much of the information it provides on reproductive health is deceptive. Its brochures present abortion as a legal option, but exaggerate possible complications and invent new dangers.
One brochure insists, “If you think abortion is a safe procedure, PLEASE KEEP READING.” Its list of risks of surgical abortion includes “short-term complications,” “depression,” “death,” “substance abuse,” “breast cancer,” and “future pregnancy risks.”
But the risk of abortion complications is low. The Guttmacher Institute reports that hospitalization rate due to complications from abortions plummeted after Roe v. Wade. Recent data indicates that “fewer than 0.3 percent of abortion patients have complications requiring hospitalization.”
Saint Gianna’s brochure, however, states that “about one in ten women undergoing elective abortion suffer immediate consequences, of which one-fifth are considered life-threatening.”
The center’s claim that women feel coerced into abortions has its origins in the studies of Vincent Rue, a well-known pro-life advocate. Rue has introduced controversial evidence on abortion to influence a number of state court cases. Many of Rue’s testimonies have been discredited by the courts, but his flawed scientific conclusions on abortion persist.
Another brochure from the Saint Gianna Center advertises “Abortion Pill Reversal.” Medical abortions involve taking two pills over the course of a few days during the first two months of pregnancy. The reversal procedure involves taking a large dose of progesterone after the first pill to negate its effects. Pro-life groups have long advocated this unproven and potentially dangerous procedure, according to an Atlantic article published last year.
Every few Saturdays, Saint Gianna Center leads a prayer service outside Planned Parenthood of Southern New England (PPSNE). Their prayer is a protest against the organization and the services it provides – STI testing, HPV vaccinations, birth control, emergency contraception, gynecological exams, pregnancy testing, and abortion services.
The Reproductive Rights Action League at Yale, or RALY, is a student group that volunteers at PPSNE. RALY Co-President Sarah Grossman-Kahn ‘17 and Advocacy Coordinator Maraya Keny-Guyer ‘19 described their volunteer work as Welcome Crew members, who greet women in the parking lot and guide them into the PPSNE building.
“We act as a positive force for women and keep an eye on the protesters on Saturday mornings,” Grossman-Kahn explained in an interview with The Politic. “Some of the tactics that the protestors use are scary. You can get filmed entering the building, which is legal. People yell at you. People call you baby murderers. There was one day last year when someone yelled at us and asked how we could do this before Mother’s Day. There’s a lot of religious invocation, too, with people reading from the Bible and displaying crosses.”
Grossman-Kahn estimated there are normally ten or fifteen protesters each weekend, but there have been some days when RALY has seen as many as forty. She emphasized that protesters can make women feel unsafe and alone, but Planned Parenthood has a strict non-engagement policy with protesters in its effort to create a more positive environment.
“It’s easy to think that in Connecticut, a blue state, most people support the right to reproductive choices,” Grossman-Kahn said. “But people don’t realize that there’s such an active anti-choice movement. People don’t realize that abortion is under fire everywhere in America. If the anti-choice movement is this prominent in Connecticut, think about what it must be like in other states.”
Planned Parenthood of Southern New England was unavailable for an interview, but Kafi Rouse, vice president of public relations, gave The Politic a statement regarding CPCs.
“There is work to be done to limit the misinformation and manipulation crisis pregnancy centers dispense. Investing in prevention and comprehensive sexual health education is the only proven way to address unintended pregnancies,” Rouse writes. “At Planned Parenthood, we work hard to make sure people can make their own decisions about their health and family without shame, judgment, or stigma.”
“There’s a false dichotomy between people who believe in having abortion as a choice and people who believe it’s important to provide prenatal care and resources for women who want to carry their pregnancies to term.” Grossman-Kahn said. “An integral part of reproductive justice is being able to receive resources for pregnancy — pregnancy should be a viable option, but not the only one.”
Many crisis pregnancy centers receive government support. Federal abstinence funds, “Choose Life” license plates, and tax-credited donations all support these centers and their efforts. According to NARAL, an estimated $60 million of taxpayer money has gone to fund crisis pregnancy centers nationally. Twenty-three states have passed laws supporting CPCs, eleven directly subsidize CPCs, and twenty direct women to CPCs.
An October 2016 ThinkProgress article even found that seven states use federal money intended for welfare programs to fund CPCs. These states — Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Dakota, and Texas – have directed over $30 million to crisis pregnancy centers this year.
Though it is hard to regulate crisis pregnancy centers, California has taken steps to hold them accountable for the information they spread. In October 2015, the state legislature passed the Reproductive FACT Act, which requires crisis pregnancy centers to inform clients where they can acquire abortion, birth control, and prenatal care, and notify their clients if they do not have medical licenses.
Crisis pregnancy centers have fought back, filing lawsuits that argue the law is unconstitutional because it violates freedom of speech under the First Amendment. But the government has regulated information circulated in some areas, like medicine and advertising. Therefore, it holds that it should be able to regulate the information spread by CPCs.
“California’s statewide law is excellent,” said Priscilla Smith ‘84 JD ‘91, Director of the Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project.
“California’s law requires factual disclosure,” Smith said in an interview with The Politic. “The main effort around trying to prevent deception is by states and local municipalities enacting these types of laws that require truthful information to be given at CPCs. They go after truth in advertising.”
“I would like to see a law that requires a CPC to say, up front, whether it will give truthful, unbiased counseling or not,” she said. “But this principle [of regulating information spread by CPCs] is still being tested in courts.”
In addition to addressing crisis pregnancy centers with legislation and lawsuits, pro-choice activists hope to raise awareness so that people learn which places to avoid when seeking reproductive care. Owens emphasized the importance of local engagement to current activism.
“We’re still at a point where if you tell people that there are these anti-choice organizations out there that take federal dollars and intimidate women out of getting abortions, people are shocked,” he said. “People are not aware of anti-choice groups. They’re not aware of this broad effort to push anti-choice ideology from a local level up.”
He argues, however, that some aspects of reproductive justice are gaining national attention, in spite of what Owens calls the “steady creep of anti-abortion provisions being passed at the state and national levels.” This new audience includes the Supreme Court. In this summer’s Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the high court struck down two provisions in Texas law that shut down numerous abortion clinics in the state.
“CPCs are becoming part of the national conversation on reproductive justice,” Owens said. “People are much more receptive, and there’s a lot more outrage against anti-abortion legislation.”
In the coming years, the national debate about reproductive rights will increasingly center on the role of CPCs. Courts will be tasked with deciding how free speech and women’s healthcare intersect. The result will shape the nature of informed choice itself.