Speaking Out with Carrie N. Baker and Tallulah Costa: Anti-abortion ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ threaten women’s health, privacy

  • Abortion rights advocates demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, in Washington. AP

Published: 2/23/2022 4:26:34 PM
Modified: 2/23/2022 4:26:11 PM

If you’re in the Northampton area and you Google “abortion services near me,” at the top of your search you will find an ad for “Clearway Clinic” in Springfield with the tagline, “Looking for Abortion Clinics? — We Discuss All Your Options.”

Despite appearances, Clearway Clinic is an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy center” (CPC), not an abortion provider. Before clicking the link, you may miss the small, pale words under the ad — “Does not provide abortions” — a warning required by Google.

Clearway Clinic is one of 29 CPCs in Massachusetts trying to prevent people from accessing abortion health care. CPCs, which often advertise themselves as women’s medical clinics, target vulnerable pregnant people, collect their private health information and provide misinformation and biased counseling regarding abortion and contraception.

As the Supreme Court appears poised to ban abortion and states are passing abortion restrictions in unprecedented numbers, many people are focused on legal barriers to abortion. But just as important to obstructing access to abortion health care is the growing web of CPCs blanketing the country, posing as reproductive health clinics in order to delay and intimidate people seeking abortion care. Some reproductive rights advocates fear that crisis pregnancy centers — as the eyes and ears of the anti-abortion movement — could play a key role in state surveillance of pregnant people and enforcement of abortion bans that are likely to be enacted in more than half of states if Roe v. Wade falls this summer.

There are over 2,500 CPCs across the United States, triple the number of abortion clinics. In Massachusetts, there are way more CPCs than there are abortion clinics. Misleading names like “Boston Center for Pregnancy Choices” and “Your Options Medical” hide their real purpose: using scare tactics to stigmatize and discourage abortion. In addition to Clearway Clinic, other CPCs in western Massachusetts include Springfield Pregnancy Care Center, Alternatives Pregnancy Center in Greenfield and New Directions Women’s Center in Pittsfield.

According to a report by The Alliance: State Advocates for Women’s Rights & Gender Equality, many CPCs are staffed by anti-abortion activists wearing white lab coats, handing out drug store pregnancy tests and offering “nondiagnostic ultrasounds” (meaning they have no medical purpose). They lure young and low-income women by offering these services for free.

Once inside, CPCs try to dissuade pregnant people from having abortions by lying to them — saying abortion is dangerous and causes breast cancer, depression and infertility — all untrue, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). They shame and stigmatize women who want abortions and try to delay them from seeking real health care until it’s too late to use abortion pills and more difficult and expensive to obtain an abortion.

These tactics are particularly dangerous for people with ectopic pregnancies as well as those who plan to continue their pregnancies but need prompt prenatal care. Many CPCs, including Clearway, advocate the dangerous practice of “abortion pill reversal” — giving pregnant people progesterone to counteract the effect of abortion pills, which ACOG describes as “unproven and unethical” and “dangerous to women’s health.”

CPCs appear to be local, community-based organizations, but are usually part of large, extremely wealthy networks, such as Heartbeat International, Care Net and Birthright International, run by white evangelical Christians or conservative Catholics. The Springfield Pregnancy Care Center, for example, is an affiliate of Heartbeat International. When pregnant people go to CPCs, they reveal their private information, believing it will be kept confidential under medical privacy laws. However, according to the Alliance report, CPCs that are part of these networks share patient information with the larger anti-abortion movement.

Health care providers in the United States are subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a law that demands physician-patient confidentiality. However, because most CPCs do not actually provide health care, and do not charge for their services nor bill insurance, they are not legally obligated to keep such private information confidential. CPCs also use sophisticated digital strategies such as geofencing and menstrual apps to track pregnant women in order to impede their access to reproductive health services and stop them from having abortions, as documented by the digital security group Privacy International.

Massachusetts needs to do more to protect its citizens from CPCs. The attorney general and district attorneys should investigate CPCs’ advertising practices to see if they violate current Massachusetts laws. If they do not, lawmakers should consider a new law to minimize the harms of CPCs.

Last summer, Connecticut passed a law barring CPCs from using false, misleading or deceptive language about the services they provide, or using language offering services that the center has no intention of providing. Massachusetts should consider a similar measure. In the meantime, we should support groups such as ReproAction and the Abortion Access Front (exposefakeclinics.com) that are working to educate the public about the deceptive tactics of CPCs.

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine. Tallulah Costa is a first-year student at Smith College, intending to major in Government and the Study of Women and Gender, with a focus on reproductive justice.

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