“The only way to get rid of these fake clinics is to expose them for what they are.”
When Williamsport, Pa. native Daneya Johnson was 15, she learned she was pregnant. While the news was frightening, Johnson found support at the Planned Parenthood health clinic in her hometown.
There, she learned she had three options: She could have an abortion. She could carry the baby to term and give it up for adoption. Or, she could keep the baby.
Johnson wanted to keep the baby. Johnson’s mother ordered her to have an abortion. When she refused, she was kicked out of her home and forced to bounce from house to house, relying on the charity of others throughout her pregnancy. Ultimately, she came to the conclusion that she would be unable to care for the child and decided on adoption.
Through an open adoption process, Johnson was able to meet her child’s prospective parents and given the opportunity to maintain a relationship with her child. Today, nearly a decade later, she still sees her son a few times per year.
Overall, Johnson says the adoption process was a positive experience and the best she could have hoped for in such a difficult situation. Still she remains traumatized by the experience of being pregnant, giving birth, and having to give her child away.
“I do not plan on having children again,” Johnson says. “That experience was heart wrenching and I continue to live with that and I would not be able to do that again.”
So two years ago when Johnson was a sophomore in college and began experiencing symptoms she believed meant she was pregnant again, she panicked.
Johnson was familiar with the services offered by Planned Parenthood from her first pregnancy, but says she was hesitant about travelling to the organization’s Downtown location. When she heard about a mobile care unit offering free pregnancy tests on campus, she jumped at the opportunity.
“One of the reasons I went to the van was because I could walk. There were no transportation costs and I think for new students travelling Downtown can be scary and that was a deterrent for me. I’d never been Downtown,” Johnson says. “It was convenient because I lived on campus. It was enticing. It was free.”
When she entered the mobile facility, she was greeted by two women, one wearing a lab coat reminiscent of a hospital or doctor’s office. Johnson was the only person there besides the staff. She says the women were friendly at first and one of them helped her through the process of taking the pregnancy test and gave her the results. She wasn’t pregnant.
While Johnson was relieved to learn the news, the remainder of the interaction did little to put her at ease. After giving Johnson the results, the woman assisting her turned stern.
“‘Do you know what God would have wanted you to do if you were pregnant,” Johnson says the woman asked. “If you were pregnant, you know you would’ve had to give birth to the child.”
Johnson quickly left the facility.
“Her tone had completely changed and I realized I was in unsafe territory,” Johnson says. “If I had been pregnant I don’t know how I would’ve handled it with that kind of advice. That really scared me to know that’s right there on campus. It was very belittling. I just ran. It was a visceral reaction. I cried, not necessarily for myself, but because that was happening on my campus.”
The mobile unit Johnson visited is what’s known as a crisis pregnancy center. Also sometimes called pregnancy resource centers, these facilities often provide free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and counseling. But women’s health advocates say the counseling these facilities offer doesn’t provide an accurate and complete picture of the options available to pregnant women.
“CPCs masquerade as medical providers, but most all of the time there’s not a medical provider on staff,” says LaTasha Mayes, executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, a human rights organization. “They give misinformation to women who may not be clear or sure about their options if they think they’re pregnant. They’re trying to dissuade them from seeking abortions and they do it in a deceptive manner.”
In Pittsburgh, local organizers are fighting to raise awareness about CPCs. Nationally, lawmakers have tried to place more restrictions on CPCs. And while lawakers do their best to restrict funding to clinics like Planned Parenthood, these clinics have no problems getting public funding from the state of Pennsylvania.
“The only way to get rid of these fake clinics is to expose them for what they are and defund them,” Mayes says. “We can’t afford to have any entity in our community limiting our ability to take care of our own health.”
According to a recent article in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics, CPCs are “organizations that seek to intercept women with unintended pregnancies who might be considering abortion. Their mission is to prevent abortions by persuading women that adoption or parenting is a better option. They strive to give the impression that they are clinical centers, offering legitimate medical services and advice, yet they are exempt from regulatory, licensure, and credentialing oversight that apply to health-care facilities.”
There are a dozen CPCs in the Pittsburgh area. These include an Image Clear Ultrasound mobile unit, like the one Johnson went to, which visits different neighborhoods in the city. Pittsburgh Current reached out to Choices Pregnancy Center, which operates the mobile units, The Women’s Clinic, Women’s Choice Network, Lifeline of Southwest PA and Birthright of Pittsburgh. The facilities either failed to return calls or declined to comment for this story.
Critics of CPCs say it makes sense that these facilities would be hesitant to talk to the media. They say CPCs lure women in by being vague about the services they offer.
“There’s a very insidious kind of advertising they engage in,” Mayes says. “They use words like choice and women’s health which are typically associated with actual health-care centers. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference between a website for a place that is going to give you all your options and a fake clinic.”
One of Choices Pregnancy Center’s websites, pregnancychoice.org, advertises free “Lab-Quality Pregnancy Testing, Pre-Termination Evaluation, Listening without Judgement and STI Testing and Treatment.”
But the organization’s other website, choices-for-life.org, where the group solicits donations, tells a different story. There, the organization asserts that its mission is to “provide positive alternative choices to abortion, with the specific goal of preserving the lives of the unborn … to heighten awareness of the sanctity of human life and the benefits of sexual abstinence outside of marriage … to form alliances with the life-affirming community in order to save future generations … to challenge the church to join us at the forefront of the battle, to restore the sanctity of human life.”
In 2015, California enacted a law to stop CPCs from misleading women. The Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency Act requires unlicensed CPCs to disclose to their clients that the center is not a licensed medical facility and has no licensed medical provider. CPCs are required to disclose this information in advertising as well. The law also requires these clinics to post a sign that says the state provides free or low-cost access to prenatal care, birth control and other reproductive care, including abortions.
But earlier this summer, the Supreme Court effectively put an end to the law in a 5-4 decision ruling it violated free speech rights.
“So you can lie to a person about whether you’re a healthcare provider because it limits your free speech.” Mayes says. “They’re giving you limited information about your choices. The way they lure you in is by making you think they’re going to provide information about all of your healthcare options.”
Misinformation doled out by CPCs has been documented. A 2006 congressional report found that federally funded CPCs informed patients seeking abortions that the procedure “could increase the risk of breast cancer, result in sterility, and lead to suicide and ‘post-abortion stress disorder.” But despite these findings, federal and state governments continue to fund these facilities.
Pennsylvania was the first state to fund crisis pregnancy centers with taxpayer money. Currently, CPCs receive funding from the Alternatives to Abortion program, administered by the Department of Public Welfare’s Expanded Medical Services for Women. The program is funded through the federal Block Grants to States for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
In 2017, an audit by the Pennsylvania Auditor General found that Real Alternatives, a state-wide CPC organization, misused state funds. According to the office, Real Alternatives admitted to using state funds to support activities outside of Pennsylvania.
“It is outrageous that, by its own admission in court, Real Alternatives used hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania taxpayer dollars to fund its activities in other states,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in a statement. “It is just as outrageous that the state grant agreement was so weak that it allowed this practice to go on for decades siphoning funds intended to benefit Pennsylvania women experiencing crisis pregnancies.
“We will never know how much money was taken out of the commonwealth nor how many Pennsylvania women and children may have been affected because this company channeled our tax dollars to other states. But, we need to make sure it doesn’t ever happen again.”
However, the state continues to fund the organization today. The state’s latest grant agreement with Real Alternatives for October 2017 to June 2019, was for more than $12 million.
“There’s been this political balance around, we won’t bother your crisis pregnancy center funding if you don’t bother our family planning dollars,” Mayes says. “That’s been the political compromise. But public dollars should not be used to lie to women about their healthcare options.”
Mayes and other CPC critics say public tax dollars would be better spent funding actual healthcare providers and sex education to help women avoid crisis pregnancies to begin with.
“Women can’t afford to have misinformation about our healthcare. All of these things go together,” Mayes says. “You have fake clinics masquerading as healthcare providers and you don’t have enough access to healthcare in communities that need it the most. These clinics are giving out misinformation and we also don’t have comprehensive sex education in our schools.”
While efforts to defund these organizations and better regulate them have failed at the local and national level, organizers in Pittsburgh say they aren’t waiting for the government to take action.
Earlier this year organizers with the Pittsburgh chapter of Democratic Socialists of America launched a campaign to shine a light on CPCs and the damage the organization says they cause.
“As socialist feminists, our analysis is grounded in the interconnected nature of capitalism, cis-hetero-patriarchy, misogyny, and white supremacy. We see CPCs as agents of state-supported violence against pregnant people. CPCs inflict emotional and financial violence on people who need healthcare and support. They appropriate the language of the feminist movement to dupe pregnant people, and they do it with taxpayer money, at the expense of families with children: Pennsylvania invented the practice of diverting TANF (welfare) funds to support crisis pregnancy centers,” DSA said in a statement.
“CPCs in Pennsylvania have enjoyed this support since 2001, while actual abortion and reproductive health care providers struggle to stay open. As socialist feminists, we expose and combat CPCs because they cause real harm: to us as people who can become pregnant, who have had abortions, who have families, and who are fully autonomous human beings. As socialist feminists, we organize to reveal the agenda behind CPCs and to choke off their sources of support at all levels because a socialist future is impossible without reproductive justice.”
Another way activists are working to shed light on the dangers of CPCs is by sharing the stories of women who have been to them.
Planned Parenthood Public Affairs Director Jessica Semler visited a CPC with a pregnant friend a few years ago. The two women had a fair bit of information about the options available to pregnant women, but took the opportunity to find out what CPCs are all about.
Semler says the center had the same appearance as any other woman’s health clinic. The people working there wore scrubs. And upon entering, her friend was asked to fill out the usual intake forms. But there were noticeable differences.
“One of the first questions asked, how many people are with you today, including your unborn baby,” Semler says.
“Immediately, they gave her information about adoption. When she asked for information about abortion, they said they weren’t allowed to provide it because it’s so dangerous and unsafe that the state bans them from providing information about it.”
After the friend received a positive pregnancy test the two women were taken to another room where the friend was encouraged to get an ultrasound.
“They were really pushy about it,” Semler says. “To a lot of patients the language doesn’t strike them as odd because they feel they should be ashamed of what they’re doing.”
Since then, through her work with Planned Parenthood, Semler says she’s heard of similar experiences and worse. One woman was told she had to have an ultrasound at the facility in order to have an abortion. Another was told she was too far along to have an abortion. And still another reported being told that because her baby had an irregular heartbeat she would miscarry anyway and didn’t need an abortion.
“They go to great lengths to present themselves in a particular way,” Semler said of the CPCS..“Seeing the promise of free pregnancy tests and a free ultrasound is appealing. But what they actually provide is judgement and shame.”
Johnson says her experience at the mobile CPC reflects what others have gone through. Since that time, she has been working with Planned Parenthood to educate women about their health options.
“If you’re looking for comprehensive health, that’s not what you’re going to get here. In these vans, they don’t give you a full list of options,” Johnson says. “I can’t imagine if that was my only option what would’ve happened.”
Looking back on her own experience of getting pregnant at 15, Johnson says she was lucky she knew about all of her options and had the time to make the decision that was best for her. She worries women victimized by CPCs won’t be as lucky.
“When you’re not given clear and accurate information you don’t have agency over your body,” Johnson says. “I knew about my options and was able to think about what was best for me. It’s very damaging psychologically if you can’t make those decisions for yourself. If you’re forced to make a decision, it’s a lifelong trauma. I think people who experience pregnancy should know it’s ok not to know what to do.”
Rebecca Addison is the Pittsburgh Current Special Projects Editor. Reach her at email@example.com