What Are Fake Abortion Clinics?
The anti-choice movement in the United States has set up thousands of bases across the country with the express goal of preventing women from obtaining abortions (via deception and coercion), and they do so in plain sight.
Crisis pregnancy centers, also known as CPCs or "fake abortion clinics," are clinics or mobile vans that resemble real health centers but are actually run by anti-abortion activists with a dubious agenda: to pressure, shame, or scare women out of getting abortions and to spread false information about birth control and sexual health.
They see themselves as the frontline defenders of the anti-choice movement. Anti-choice groups say that there are more than 3,500 of these fake clinics in the United States, even though the number of real abortion clinics has been going down steadily.
A troubling number of these anti-choice CPCs get money from taxpayers to shame and control women who want medical help but never get it. For far too long, CPCs have operated with reckless abandon in our communities. No matter what her life is like, every woman in this country has the right to accurate, unbiased medical advice. It is time to recognize CPCs for what they are: a grave threat to a woman’s right to choose.
What To Know About Crisis Pregnancy Centers
Crisis pregnancy centers don't offer abortions or full health care, and they won't give you accurate information about your sexual health or your options if you're pregnant. Instead, their goal is to spread propaganda and false information.
Crisis pregnancy centers usually make every effort to appear to be ordinary doctor's offices. They may have ultrasound machines, white-coated employees, medical-sounding names, and professional websites. They also often put up signs near real healthcare centers, like Planned Parenthood. They do all of this to trick you into coming to their CPC instead, where they can pressure you into making certain sex and pregnancy decisions.
Crisis pregnancy centers typically advertise free pregnancy tests and pregnancy counseling, and some may claim to offer additional services such as STD testing, but these centers do not provide most types of health care, and the information they provide is not always accurate or trustworthy. They may, for example, say your pregnancy is earlier or later than it is in order to confuse you about how much time you have to get an abortion if you want one.
CPCs use a variety of methods to attract women, such as strategically placed online and offline ads, locations near comprehensive women's health clinics, and even state-sanctioned referrals. The promise is always the same: unintended pregnancy counseling.
These strategies range from bus and billboard advertisements to sophisticated online campaigns to entice unsuspecting women. CPCs purposefully place their outdoor advertising near high schools, colleges, and low-income neighborhoods to reach their "target" audience of women they believe are vulnerable and "abortion-minded."
As with traditional methods, CPCs use the internet to specifically target women. In far too many cases, when women look for an abortion clinic online, they are redirected to CPCs that employ deceptive marketing strategies to divert women away from legitimate medical facilities. Google, the most popular search engine, is the primary advertising platform for CPCs. They use search engine marketing strategies that involve bidding on specific keywords, such as "abortion," to attract potential customers. When women click on these ads, they expect to be directed to reputable health clinic websites, but they are instead directed to CPCs' sites. CPCs have found success with the "bait and switch" strategy, in which they attract women by making them think they will receive or at least be educated about abortion care.
What Happens At A Crisis Pregnancy Center
It could begin with a billboard or a bus advertisement: "Pregnant and scared? Do you require assistance?" A clinic with an unobtrusive name provides free pregnancy tests and confidential counseling. A woman walks into what seems to be a typical women's clinic looking for an abortion or, at the very least, accurate medical advice about her unplanned pregnancy. When she calls to make an appointment and inquires about abortion, she is given vague or ambiguous responses and told to come to the clinic to discuss it in person.
Women who walk into a CPC often have a very different experience than what they were led to believe by deceptive advertisements and sales pitches. In an effort to dissuade women from getting an abortion, using contraception, or receiving thorough, accurate medical counseling, CPC representatives engage in a well-documented pattern of deception, coercion, and misinformation. These include false information and outright lies about birth control, infertility, the so-called “post-abortion syndrome,” breast cancer, and more.
Many CPCs maintain the appearance of unbiased, comprehensive clinics to give the impression that they are legitimate health providers. Volunteers who are not licensed medical providers may dress in lab coats and require clients to fill out paperwork before meeting with a "counselor."
Written materials available in waiting rooms or distributed by CPC volunteers and staff are usually the first indication that these are not legitimate medical clinics. In Massachusetts, 70% of CPCs investigated distributed pamphlets that misrepresented the risk of abortion. "Before You Decide," the most widely distributed pamphlet, lists heavy bleeding, sepsis, uterine perforation, scarring, and death as risks of abortion but doesn't say how likely they are, which is low.
What are The Risks of Visiting a Fake Clinic?
Since crisis pregnancy centers are not legally recognized as medical clinics, they are exempt from the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and are not required to keep your medical information confidential. These crisis pregnancy centers might even share your personal information with other anti-abortion groups or use it to harass you in some way. If you live in a state that restricts access to abortion services, this may cause you additional cause for concern.
CPCs will also try to judge and shame the women who seek them out for information about medical options during an unintended pregnancy. They simply give out pregnancy tests like those sold in drugstores and don't offer any interpretation or analysis. They put women in danger by using delay tactics that make it more challenging, expensive, or impossible for them to get an abortion. In fact:
- 53% of Minnesota CPCs used delay tactics, such as recommending that pregnant women wait a month to take another pregnancy test and get an ultrasound to determine pregnancy viability—a medical evaluation most CPCs are not qualified to make.
- 24% of North Carolina CPCs suggested miscarriage as a possibility and therefore a reason to delay an abortion.
CPCs not only use scare tactics and misinformation to achieve their goal of discouraging women from having abortions, but they also emotionally manipulate, judge, shame, and bully the women who walk through their doors. CPC volunteers pounce on women emotionally just when they are at their most vulnerable and seeking advice. When it comes to inflicting shame and criticism, CPCs often resort to the following methods:
- Providing women with baby items to dissuade their decision to abort.
- Calling the fetus a "baby" or an "unborn child," and declaring that abortion is "killing."
- Having a negative reaction to a woman’s decision to have an abortion and expressing open hostility if they are unwilling to change their mind.
- Displaying or presenting women with fetal “dolls”—models of developmentally inaccurate fetuses used to shame women into changing their minds about abortion.
- Refusing to give an abortion referral or making women feel so uncomfortable that they are unable to ask for one.
No woman should ever have to deal with unprofessional medical advice that could put her health in jeopardy. Until all CPCs are exposed, women are not going to have reproductive freedom. Women need to know their rights and understand their medical options.
How To Spot A CPC Before It’s Too Late
Websites such as crisispregnancycentermap.com, The Fake Clinic Database, and exposefakeclinics.com can assist you in determining which clinics in your area are crisis pregnancy centers. The United States is home to a large number of CPCs. Here are some signs that a clinic might be a crisis pregnancy center:
- It's listed as a pregnancy resource, help, care center, or an abortion alternative online or in map apps.
- They won't help you get an abortion, but they offer free pregnancy tests, abortion counseling, pre-abortion screenings, and abortion education.
- They advertise "abortion pill reversal" (Abortions can't be reversed.)
- They say abortion causes cancer, infertility, or mental health issues. (Abortion is safe. Less than 1% of patients experience major complications, making it safer than wisdom tooth removal. Abortion doesn't cause cancer, infertility, or mental health issues.)
- They criticize abortion, birth control, condoms, and sex.
- If they offer birth control, it's only through fertility awareness.
- They pressure you to continue a pregnancy or consider adoption.
- They force you to discuss religion.
- They judge sex before marriage, single parenting, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color.
- You must attend CPC lectures and workshops to "earn" clothes, diapers, and bottles.
Looking at a clinic's website for some of the red flags mentioned above is a simple way to determine if it is a CPC. If you call and ask about their services and are told they do not offer abortion or reliable forms of birth control like condoms or the pill, and if they refuse to refer you to a clinic that does, you can assume they are not a legitimate medical facility. Another major red flag is if they are vague about what they offer or try to force you to visit the clinic in person.
When In Doubt, Trust Your Gut
Anything suspicious should be treated as such. You always have the option to leave a clinic if you are uncomfortable there.
True health centers are upfront and honest about their services. They will help you get the care you need and won't put any pressure on you to make certain choices about physical intimacy, preventing pregnancy, or unwanted pregnancies. Real health centers tell you the truth about all of your options, without trying to scare you or make you feel guilty, so you can make an informed choice for yourself.
Planned Parenthood health centers are always a safe haven for truthful, open-minded care and support regarding all of one's reproductive and sexual wellness, including abortion, emergency contraception, STD diagnosis and treatment, pregnancy prevention, and more. If you want to learn more about your pregnancy options, you can visit your local Planned Parenthood. You can also go to abortionfinder.org for more information.
PlannedParenthood.org is also a good source of information about sexual and reproductive health, even if you don't live near a center in order to visit and ask your questions in person. You can still speak with a live health educator on their free, confidential chat service to get personalized information and find reputable care in your area, regardless of where you live. To get answers without frustration or shame, use their website or call 1-800-230-PLAN. Their online chat services are free and confidential.
What Should Be Done?
When it comes to the women they prey upon, CPCs are sneaky and dishonest, but their parent organizations aren't shy about laying out their ideological goals. These organizations support anti-choice CPCs nationwide by providing resources like legal counsel, funding, and even staff members.
The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates boasts on its website that it is "on the front lines" of the "cultural battle" over abortion and that it has over 1,300 CPC affiliates. It is the mission of this organization to "provide [CPCs] with legal resources and counsel, with the aim of developing a network of life-affirming ministries in every community across the nation in order to achieve an abortion-free America."
A woman would never go to a CPC if she knew that its sole purpose was to discourage her from considering all of her alternatives in terms of reproductive health care, especially abortion. Fake clinics, however, do not want to be honest with their "customers" about what they really are, and it's obvious to recognize why.
In the United States, there are thousands of these types of clinics, yet only a few of them have been brought into question by third parties or state attorneys general. Under the laws governing unfair business practices, state attorneys general should pursue more legal action. It is possible to go to court against these fake abortion clinics without violating their right to free speech. Fake abortion clinics are a clear example of communication that is "intentionally misleading and deceptive," which is not protected by the First Amendment. This is why the few lawsuits brought under state deceptive business statutes have been successful.
Whether inside or outside of their facilities, CPCs engage in deceitful practices. Their ads provide the wrong impression. When a woman takes a pregnancy test, she is required to watch a film that discourages abortion before she is given the results. There are two distinct "privacy" concerns at play here. First of all, the woman is never told about the content or risks she will be exposed to at these centers or the dangers she might face if she follows the advice of someone who is not a medical professional. Second, the choice to have an abortion is supposed to be made independently by the woman, outside of any personal or social considerations.
Defamatory statements made by bogus abortion clinics need to be regulated by the government in order to stop them from operating and to protect women from being forced into unsafe circumstances. People's reproductive freedom would be protected, and the state's interests would be served, if anti-abortion clinics had to follow laws against misleading business practices.
How Can You Help?
Because of the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, the legal right to have an abortion in the United States has been abolished. The majority of the Supreme Court decided to overturn a rule that had been in place for almost 50 years. This means that we no longer have control over our own bodies and choices about our medical care.
This could be a bad outcome, which will make more and more states pass laws that make it harder to get an abortion. To get an abortion, people will have to go out of state, if they can afford to do so at all. Those who don't have the means to terminate a pregnancy will either have to stay pregnant or find a way to get one outside of the legal system.
Because so much is at risk, we are more devoted than ever to protecting women’s reproductive and sexual health. As a symbol of compassion, we say that Planned Parenthood is an organization worth supporting, and they are relying on you to rise to the occasion. Supporters of abortion rights should sign their "Bans Off Our Bodies" petition immediately and check out their website for more ways to get involved.