"Step into my parlour" said the Spider to the Fly
Crisis pregnancy centers are not philanthropy. They're fundamentalist predators.
“One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin”
- Proverbs 18:24
On June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court issued a 6-3 majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that abortion is not a constitutionally protected right. This ruling overturned both Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey (1992) and allows states to legally restrict or outright ban abortion procedures.
SCOTUS’s decision immediately triggered Wisconsin’s abortion ban statute, which was first written in 1849, around the time when indoor plumbing was a new-fangled concept and seventy years before (white) women gained the right to vote. The text of that law states that “any person, other than the mother, who intentionally destroys the life of an unborn child” is guilty of a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. “Unborn child” is defined as “a human being from the time of conception until it is born alive.” The sole exception to the ban is if an abortion is “deemed necessary, or is advised by two other physicians as necessary, to save the life of the mother.” The procedure must be done by a physician and must take place in a licensed maternity hospital unless prevented by an emergency.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you became pregnant as the result of rape or incest, or whether your pregnancy is viable. Your own wishes and well-being do not matter. Unless up to three doctors agree that you are close enough to actual death, a law written twelve years before the Civil War says the State of Wisconsin can legally force you to continue your pregnancy.
Two political action committees, Wisconsin Family Action and Pro-Life Wisconsin, want to remove the “life of the mother” exception so that in WFA President Julaine Appling’s “perfect world,” a pregnant person could literally not have a legal abortion to save their own life. Somehow, their “pro-life, pro-family” stances include permanent fertility loss, widowed spouses, and orphaned children, but not safe and legal medical procedures to prevent those tragedies.
Both of these groups also want to add a “personhood amendment” to the state Constitution to extend the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to a "human being at any stage of development." Pro-Life Wisconsin Executive Director Matt Sande said his group’s motivation for the amendment was to prevent the State Supreme Court from potentially ruling that Wisconsin’s abortion ban was unconstitutional based on that bane of Justice Clarence Thomas’s existence: a 14th Amendment substantive due process claim.
Wisconsin Right to Life agrees with the other two groups’ opposition to adding abortion ban exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, but does not support removing the life of the mother exception or the proposed personhood amendment. Their Legislative Director, Gracie Skogman, said Wisconsin Right to Life is focused instead on pushing for more public funding of pregnancy resource centers.
As registered non-profit organizations, pregnancy resource centers already receive tens of millions of dollars in public tax money through state and federal grant funding. They also receive state-disbursed funding via “Choose Life” specialty license plates in 33 states. According to the national Choose Life, Inc.’s national website, this program alone has raised $29 million as of 2019. Fun fact: Wisconsin’s Choose Life state chapter was founded by none other than Wisconsin Family Action and Pro-Life Wisconsin. (Coincidence? The universe is rarely so lazy.)
Pregnancy resource centers are sometimes called crisis pregnancy centers. I’m going to call them what they actually are: predatory Christian fundamentalist propaganda masquerading as nonprofit philanthropy. For a more workable shorthand, we’ll go with “fake clinics.” Fake clinics are not accurate or reputable sources of pregnancy-related medical care. The purpose of a fake clinic is to use misinformation and manipulation to coerce people with unplanned pregnancies away from choosing or being able to access abortion services. Oh, and to create a multi-million dollar international cash cow with an unholy amount of partisan political influence, of course. We’ll get to that part in a minute.
Fake clinics rely on legitimate-sounding names and logos, deceptive advertising, and misleading or outright false information to prey upon vulnerable people. They know that offering “free” services like pregnancy testing, sonograms, and so-called counseling will lure in people who don’t have health insurance, may not have the financial means to access to care from legitimate medical care providers, or whose family or social networks are not supportive of an unplanned pregnancy. So, they slap on a smile and a white coat and forget to mention they’re not actually a licensed medical facility.
Most fake clinics are unregulated, not bound by HIPAA privacy laws, and not qualified or even allowed to diagnose or treat pregnancy or any other medical condition. By not charging fees and using First Amendment free speech and religious exercise protections as their “get out of malpractice free” card, fake clinics have considerable leeway to operate in ways that do not meet standard ethical practices for professional medical care. That free sonogram can’t legitimately be used to determine pregnancy viability or accurately assess fetal development. It may not even be done by a licensed ultrasound technician, but it will definitely be used to pressure the client into continuing their pregnancy.
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Like a spider under a streetlight, fake clinics know the power of a good location. They’ll set up shop as close as possible to actual abortion providers, where they can trick patients into coming to the wrong place by misleading signage or coordination with local anti-abortion protestors. Fake clinics also use search engine optimization tools to make sure their names appear as top results in Google searches for things like “pregnancy care,” “pregnancy resources,” or “pregnancy help near me,” ahead of actual gynecologists, obstetricians, or even public health departments.
Speaking of free, some fake clinics will also offer material resources like diapers, bottles, clothing, or prenatal vitamins. There may not be a monetary fee, but there is always a catch. These items may only be accessed through an “Earn While You Learn” program that requires clients to complete curriculum on pregnancy, parenting, life skills, “love lessons,” and even personal hygiene from a religious-based, heteronormative perspective that emphasizes “character-based abstinence training,” marriage to a different-sex partners, and tends to feature aspects of white evangelical Christianity as the desired behavioral standard.
If a client has had an abortion in the past, fake clinics may offer either individual or group-based “post-abortion support counseling” to deal with the resulting “shame, regret, denial, numbness, anger, anxiety, sadness, and depression” they believe can manifest months or even years later. Some fake clinics also advertise “abortion pill reversal” services that claim to be able to effectively cancel the effects of a medication abortion. The American College of Obstetrics has denounced these claims and treatments as unproven, unethical, and unsupported by reputable medical science.
Fake clinics also cause harm to people who have never and will never use their services. Heartbeat International is an anti-abortion network that serves over 3,000 pregnancy resource centers (fake clinics) around the world. Member clinics in the United States use an affiliate company called Option Line for after-hours phone calls and 24-hour live online chat services. My local fake clinic uses Option Line, so I tried out their online chat service while I was doing research for this article.
Now, imagine you have an unplanned pregnancy and you live in an abortion-hostile state. Legislators in Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas have said they want to pass bills to fine or prosecute people who travel across state lines to access abortion care, and the United States Senate just blocked a bill that would have prevented them from doing so. Would you want an organization that opposes both abortion and birth control strongly enough to submit a 43-page amicus curiae brief in support of ending those constitutional protections to have even one byte of your personal data?
I’ve never had an abortion. I’m six years post-hysterectomy and can no longer become pregnant, but I am also very openly queer, do not follow Heartbeat International’s understanding of “God’s Plan” for sexuality, marriage, or sexual purity, and do not wish to be Reached, Rescued, or Renewed. I exited out of that chat so fast you’d have thought my keyboard had caught fire.
I didn’t write all this to fault anyone who has ever been a pregnancy resource center client. Access to comprehensive medical care and support is not guaranteed. Affording it is an even greater challenge, especially in states like Wisconsin whose legislatures rejected Medicaid program expansion under the Affordable Care Act on top of having repressive abortion laws. Maybe you didn’t realize what you were getting into. Maybe you did but felt like you had no other good options under the circumstances. The fault of their dishonesty and manipulation lies with them, not you. I don’t want anyone reading this to feel any shame or coercion over whatever choice they made regarding their pregnancy. I also don’t want folks to shame anyone else’s circumstances or try to coerce their choices.
To that end, if you need real reproductive healthcare, your local Planned Parenthood is very likely still providing pregnancy testing, birth control, emergency contraception, postpartum care, STI testing and treatment, HIV testing and education, pelvic exams, and cancer screenings even if abortion is banned in your state. I’m a former Planned Parenthood patient. I got the pregnancy testing, exams, and specialist referrals I needed, and not one bit of judgement or pressure. They told me all of my options, asked me what I wanted, and respected my choice when I said I wanted to continue a complicated pregnancy and become a single parent of both a toddler and an infant. Yes, really.
If you are looking specifically for abortion care, AbortionFinder.org has a comprehensive, nationwide directory of verified providers. Planned Parenthood can also either schedule your care or refer you to an out-of-state provider. If you need financial assistance, two national resources are AbortionFunds.org and the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project. Wisconsin residents can also contact the Women’s Medical Fund.
Neither religion nor pregnancy should ever be forced on another person. Abortion is a medical procedure. Medical procedures are healthcare, and healthcare is a human right.