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FEATURE | fall 2008

Dangerous Masquerade
On a mission to eliminate reproductive choice, so-called crisis pregnancy centers are taking in millions of government dollars-and unsuspecting college students.

*UPDATE: Bush’s lame-duck rule change could funnel millions more to CPCs*

Women in front of CPCWhen Nina Lopez, 19, a student at Santa Monica College in California, learned that her school routinely referred students concerned about possible pregnancies to a “pregnancy resource center,” or “crisis pregnancy center” (CPC), she was concerned.

She knew basically what these centers are all about: They offer only limited options to pregnant women while purveying a strong anti-abortion message, although this mission is not always clearly disclosed in their advertising or by their names. According to an investigative report on federally funded pregnancy resource centers prepared for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), they are "virtually always pro-life [anti-abortion] organizations whose goal is to persuade teenagers and women with unplanned pregnancies to choose motherhood or adoption. They do not offer abortions or referrals to abortion providers.” Yet, as the Waxman report pointed out, these centers—there are an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 in the U.S., many affiliated with evangelical Christian ministries—often mask their mission with tactics such as advertising under “abortion services” in the yellow pages or representing in their ads that they provide pregnant women with all of their options.

Lopez, a member of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA) on her campus, decided to check out herself whether one particular center recommended by her school was actually offering a full range of choices to young women. So she went for a pregnancy test at the center, which promises “informed pregnancy and sexual health choices” in its brochure and which, according to its website, has medically trained staff and offers medical consultation.

“Even before I found out I wasn’t pregnant, the counselor said I should abstain from sex,” says Lopez. She was given a fact sheet on “post-abortion stress” and asked to fill out a form that sought nonmedical information about her family and her religious beliefs. And then, when her urine test revealed not a pregnancy but a possible urinary tract infection, the center did not offer her any medical treatment or refer her elsewhere.

An untold number of college-age women find themselves in Lopez’s position for real, because their colleges regularly refer students to CPCs. A survey conducted this past summer by the Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms., found that of 398 campus health centers at four-year colleges that responded to a questionnaire, 48 percent routinely refer women who think they might be pregnant to CPCs. Although 81 percent also refer women to full-service health clinics, some campus centers say they want to give students “all of the options,” as one health-center director put it.

But the ramifications to women’s health and reproductive rights couldn’t be more serious. “Any attempt to delay care and try and scare a woman into keeping an unwanted pregnancy only serves to put her at higher risk—especially if she has an ectopic pregnancy,” says Beth Jordan, M.D., an internist who is the medical director of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “As a doctor, it’s shocking to me that health centers at academic institutions would refer women to these CPCs that blatantly misinform women of health risks in an attempt to scare them into keeping the pregnancy.”

Despite the falsehoods many promulgate, CPCs increasingly compete with comprehensive health-care clinics for market share, [aided by] nearly $14 million in funding from the government’s abstinence-only-until-marriage funding pools in 2007. “They have been exceedingly skillful at getting money,” says Bill Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). “They are even trying to get Title X family-planning money.”

Some states have taken action to bring accountability to CPCs and slow their growth. Several state legislatures are considering bills that would require CPCs to state that they are not medical centers and do not provide factual medical information. Bills currently on hold in the U.S. House and Senate would prevent CPCs from using deceptive advertising. But the most important piece of action, says Smith of SIECUS, will be ending the “gravy train” of federal money that has been funneled into CPCs under the Bush administration.

The full text of this article appears in the Fall issue of Ms., available on newsstands or by joining the Ms. community.

Check out additional resources: – Campaign to Expose Fake Clinics

Photo by Marina Chavez