What are crisis pregnancy centers and why are they so controversial?

Doctor's examination room with wall-mounted medical diagnostic equipment beside standard patient examination chair
Crisis pregnancy centers provide limited, free pregnancy-related services to women, but they are not without controversy. (Photo: Getty Images)

There are nearly 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) throughout the U.S., which provide limited, free pregnancy-related services to women. But critics say these centers — which can look like medical clinics but are nonprofit, anti-abortion organizations that typically have evangelical religious affiliations — “mislead” women who go there seeking abortions.

“A crisis pregnancy center is an anti-abortion organization, a fake clinic or a mobile vehicle that poses as a legitimate health care center, often to purposely deceive pregnant people,” Sawyeh Esmaili, senior counsel for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center, tells Yahoo Life. “They all aim to dissuade, deceive, scare or pressure people into not seeking or receiving abortion care. They also endorse policies against contraception.”

But Andrea Trudden, vice president of communications and marketing with Heartbeat International — which supports one of the largest networks of crisis pregnancy centers in the world — argues that these facilities, also known as pregnancy resource centers or pregnancy care centers, “help empower families and strengthen communities.” She tells Yahoo Life: “Every woman deserves compassionate care and practical support when facing an unexpected pregnancy, and that's why pregnancy help organizations exist.”

What services do crisis pregnancy centers provide?

Crisis pregnancy centers provide different services, depending on the needs of the community, says Trudden. But in general, she says, they can include everything from parenting classes and material goods, such as free diapers and formula, to STI (sexually transmitted infection) testing and ultrasounds. “Some even provide housing for pregnant women and new moms — all at no cost to the women,” says Trudden. “The life-affirming care offered at these locations helps equip and empower women as they enter a new phase of life with confidence.”

Esmaili points out, however, that while CPCs often provide free pregnancy tests, “they are usually the pregnancy tests that are found at a pharmacy rather than the tests conducted in a doctor’s office or health clinic.” She adds: “Some also offer ‘free’ limited obstetric ultrasounds. While this may not cost the person seeking care money, they are not truly ‘free.’”

She explains that’s because these “free” services are often contingent on “receiving ‘counseling,’ signing a waiver or listening to an anti-abortion presentation.” While some centers offer STI testing, Esmaili says, “they often fail to offer testing for a full range of STIs and some even appear to have no follow-up for ensuring people receive appropriate treatment.”

But some say that these centers do provide some helpful services — at least when it comes to helping pregnant women who aren’t seeking an abortion. In her 2020 study, Katrina Kimport, a research sociologist in the ANSIRH (Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health) program at the University of San Francisco, and an associate professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, spoke with 21 women who had visited crisis pregnancy centers in southern Louisiana and Baltimore. The majority of the women were “financially struggling,” Kimport tells Yahoo Life, and went to these centers seeking free services they might not otherwise have been able to get or afford, including pregnancy tests, ultrasounds or material goods, such as baby and maternity clothes or diapers.

“The people I spoke with, for the most part, were deeply appreciative of these services and the promise of material goods and how they were treated,” says Kimport. “For the most part, they felt like they were treated with dignity and respect. For people continuing their pregnancy, this was a very positive experience they had.”

But Kimport does take issue with the fact that these women had to go through an “obstacle course,” such as attending religious classes in order to receive these services. “It was very much ‘strings attached,’ so even though it's free, it was a cost to their time,” she says.

Why critics say these centers are 'dangerous'

Critics' main issue with these facilities, however, focuses on misleading information provided about abortion. “Crisis pregnancy centers pose as legitimate health centers, but are actually harmful propaganda mills designed to misinform and disinform patients by spreading lies about abortion, birth control, emergency contraception and other sexual and reproductive health services,” Julia Bennett, senior director of digital education and learning strategy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, tells Yahoo Life.

Olivia Raisner, reporter and co-founder of Mayday Health, a nonprofit organization that provides information about accessing abortion pills in the U.S., witnessed this firsthand when she went undercover at five crisis pregnancy centers in Indiana. Raisner — posing as a pregnant woman considering abortion and armed with a pregnant friend’s urine sample and a hidden camera — was told by a woman at one center that some women who have abortions develop scar tissue on their “fallopian tissues” and can no longer get pregnant naturally. “Infertility is a huge problem after abortions,” the woman can be heard saying in the video. She went on to claim that, post-abortion, women can experience “depression, lack of sleep, anorexia and sometimes bulimia” and even become “suicidal.”

But research shows that abortion in the U.S. is safe. “It's important to know that in most cases abortion does not affect future health,” according to the American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). “Abortion does not increase the risk of breast cancer, depression or infertility.”

Research shows that “the notion that abortion harms women’s mental health is not supported by rigorous evidence,” and that abortion doesn’t raise the risk of experiencing “symptoms of depression, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress, anxiety or stress in the short term, or over five years.” In fact, research shows that, compared to having an abortion, “being denied a wanted abortion may be associated with greater risk of experiencing adverse psychological outcomes in the short term.”

The woman at the clinic also told Raisner while she was undercover that there is a pill that can reverse a medical abortion, which is false. ACOG states that these claims are “unproven and unethical.”

“Everyone’s allowed to have an opinion,” Raisner tells Yahoo Life. “But using that opinion to peddle false medical information to pregnant people in a vulnerable emotional state is manipulation. I was shocked at the lengths these CPCs went to assume a medical posture, when not one staffer I spoke to had a medical background.”

Raisner, who calls these facilities “dangerous,” says that misleading conversations like these are happening “every single day across the United States. CPCs are being funded by taxpayer dollars. They’re spreading quickly. And the first step towards putting an end to these sham medical facilities is by exposing what goes on inside.”

Why are they sometimes mistaken for clinics that provide abortion care?

Crisis pregnancy centers, as well as their websites, can resemble those of medical clinics that provide abortion services, which only adds to the confusion.

“One of the ways CPCs intentionally mislead patients is by seeming like a normal doctor’s office, even though CPCs are not licensed health care providers and therefore don’t have to abide by laws like HIPAA,” Bennett says. “They may have professional websites, medical-sounding names, ultrasound machines and staff in white coats. They may also advertise in close proximity to real health centers, like Planned Parenthood.”

Esmaili says that the name of some of these facilities “may only vary slightly from legitimate reproductive care clinics, and CPCs commonly use search engine optimization techniques so their websites will show up in online search results when someone is trying to locate abortion care.”

She adds that these centers often use their websites and advertising “to present themselves as a facility that provides comprehensive and unbiased care, when that is far from the truth.”

How can you tell if it’s a crisis pregnancy center?

There are a few ways to determine if a facility is actually a crisis pregnancy center rather than a medical clinic that provides abortion care. Esmaili says they often refer to themselves as a “pregnancy resource center,” “pregnancy help center,” “women’s resource center,” or even “abortion alternative,” and often offer free pregnancy tests and/or ultrasounds. “They take an intentional anti-abortion approach to unintended pregnancy,” says Esmaili, who adds that “any reference to religion or prayer.” is another indication.

“A big sign is if they don’t provide condoms or other effective birth control methods like the pill, patch, ring, shot, IUD or implant,” Bennett says. “A CPC may also claim to offer abortion counseling or free pregnancy tests — or even STI [sexually transmitted infection] testing — but won’t give you an abortion or will try to talk you out of getting one. These centers don’t actually provide most kinds of health care, and the information they give isn’t always accurate or trustworthy.”

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