Stay away from these fake clinics in the Rio Grande Valley

Frustrated at their inability to legally ban the constitutional right to seek abortions, the anti-choice movement has long attempted some bold and aggressive strategies to undermine reproductive rights. Conservative legislatures, backed by the anti-choice lobby, have written laws to decrease access to abortion, often going against the advice of the medical and scientific communities, and have diverted funds away from programs that actually help families to support ineffective, anti-choice programs instead. One of the worst examples of these bold, anti-abortion strategies is Crisis Pregnancy Centers.

Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) are anti-choice, non-medical facilities that pose as legitimate medical clinics in an attempt to manipulate pregnant people from considering abortion. These centers typically do not employ any actual medical professionals, yet they mimic the same exterior as your average health clinic and even claim to offer the same services as real medical care providers. There are over 4,000 CPCs across the U.S., with more than 50 in Texas. Three of them in in the Rio Grande Valley.

Related: What to expect if you need an abortion in the Rio Grande Valley

Most CPCs claim to offer services similar to those you might find at a gynecological center or other medical care facilities, like pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, adoption referrals, and “post-abortive counseling.” Most Crisis Pregnancy Centers, however, have unqualified staff working devices that require medical training, do not offer typical services like family planning or access to contraceptives, and their “post-abortive counseling” is usually religious in nature, and conducted by unlicensed “counselors.”

Community members outside of the Crisis Pregnancy Center in downtown McAllen, Texas

Crisis Pregnancy Centers are especially dangerous in communities like the Rio Grande Valley because they target low-income people by offering free services, and false promises of postnatal support, including free diapers and baby formula. People go to these clinics in search of medical attention and support but are instead bombarded with anti-choice rhetoric, inaccurate and misleading information about pregnancy and abortion, and images of miscarried fetuses to manipulate patients away from potentially considering abortion. Besides being unethical, these practices pose all sorts of threats to the actual health and well-being of patients seeking real care.

What’s worse is that all of this occurs with full support from state governments. In Texas alone, legislatures allocated 20 million dollars to support Crisis Pregnancy Centers, while cutting funding to programs that provide necessary and practical services to Texans, like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and HIV prevention initiatives.

There are three Crisis Pregnancy Centers in the RGV, two in Hidalgo County, and one in Cameron County. Of the three, the McAllen Pregnancy Center is perhaps the most notorious among local pro-choice advocates for its aggressive tactics to harass and manipulate abortion-seeking patients at a nearby abortion clinic. Staff and volunteers at this CPC often wear scrubs to appear as nurses and doctors, while attempting to intimidate abortion-seeking patients. They hold prayer services, together with affiliates of the Archdiocese of Brownsville, outside of the nearby abortion clinic, even attempting to block the clinic’s front entrance, a violation of city ordinances, to prevent patients from entering. They also use abusive, fear-mongering tactics such as shouting false information about abortions or shoving pamphlets with images of miscarried fetuses (not abortions) into the hands of patients seeking abortion care.

Pro-choice advocates, tired of the deceit and gross manipulation of patients seeking medical care by CPCs and frustrated by the support CPCs receive from state governments, are taking action.

#ExposeFakeClinics is a national campaign started by dozens of reproductive rights organizations across the country to expose the truth about “phony, anti-abortion clinics,” and their dishonest, non-medical services. Advocates for Youth, one of the campaign’s national partners, organized an “Expose Fake Clinics” week of action in October.

Community members outside of the Crisis Pregnancy Center in downtown McAllen, Texas

RGV residents working with Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE), Texas Rising, the South Texans for Reproductive Justice, and Advocates for Youth, participated in the week of action by organizing a social media campaign, combined with direct actions throughout the week.

Making the most out of Instagram stories and Facebook’s live feature, activists like Renee Rivas from Advocates for Youth and Nina Zamarripa from URGE created and shared content with in-depth information about Crisis Pregnancy Centers in Texas and the Rio Grande Valley.

Others took to Twitter, where they shared infographics and created threads using the hashtag #ExposeFakeClinics.

“We want to show people in the Rio Grande Valley that these ‘clinics’ exist,” said Zamarripa. “We want to expose them, because they’re not actual medical facilities, and they do not help women.”

The coalition also protested local Crisis Pregnancy Centers last week, rallying outside the McAllen Pregnancy Center and New Life Pregnancy Center in Brownsville for three consecutive days.

In McAllen, protesters stood in front of the Crisis Pregnancy Center holding a banner that read “McAllen Pregnancy Center is a fake clinic” in bold letters. Their presence was unexpected and somewhat bewildering to the staff of the center, who are much more accustomed to harassing patients outside abortion clinics, than to having protesters gather outside their own facility.

A few of the center’s staff members made their way out to the parking lot, their confused looks quickly turning sour. They gathered to glare at protesters in the distance, who in turn seemed to find resolve in their antagonistic crowd. They chanted, “This is a fake clinic!” more loudly. They sprinkled in bits of information like, “the state is taking resources away from actual family planning to support these phonies,” in between their chants of “fake clinic.”

Community members outside of the Crisis Pregnancy Center in downtown McAllen, Texas

It would be easy to frown upon the actions of these pro-choice advocates, hoping they would take a “turn the other cheek” approach to the antics of anti-abortion activists, rather than a “taste of their own medicine” one; however, the decision to rally outside the Crisis Pregnancy Centers was strategic, and not vindictive.

“We are protesting outside of these CPCs in order to expose them as non-medical facilities,” said Ofelia Alonso, a student organizer with Advocates for Youth. “Crisis Pregnancy Centers are designed to look trustworthy and legitimate, so a simple banner action can actually prevent further manipulation by these fake clinics.” Their strategy seemed effective as commuters would drive by, honking their horns in support, and those who caught the red light would often roll down their windows and ask, “What do you mean they’re a fake clinic?”

The group of protesters proved diligent, outlasting the scolding faces of the CPC staff, who eventually made their way back inside. One protester shared her story about the traumatic experience she endured when receiving post-abortive counseling from the McAllen Pregnancy Center’s unqualified staff. Her voice cracked as she passionately spoke out. When she was done speaking, some participants offered a hug, saying “we support you.”

This experience really put things in perspective for the group of pro-choice advocates, providing a real-life example of the potential harm Crisis Pregnancy Center’s pose to our community. They wondered out loud how the state could allow these pseudo-clinics to operate. Some went as far as to question why the unqualified staff that work at facilities like the McAllen Pregnancy Center, were not being prosecuted for impersonating doctors and offering clinical counseling without a license. One main point of grievance the group seemed to share was how Texas legislatures, a conservative, stingy bunch, willfully squandered resources, better suited for programs like family planning to support Crisis Pregnancy Centers. But such is the state of reproductive rights in Texas and the U.S.

The #ExposeFakeClinics week of action took place against a backdrop of reproductive rights battles that might leave one scratching their head and wondering how and why. In fact, while local activists organized their actions last week, the federal government was working to prevent, “Jane Doe,” an immigrant, unaccompanied minor being held in detention in Brownsville, from receiving abortion care. After a contentious legal battle, Jane Doe was eventually granted her right to abort by a federal judge, her procedure being performed at Whole Woman’s Health last Wednesday morning, only a stone’s throw away from the Mcallen Pregnancy Center where protesters gathered.

These seem like small victories in the monumental struggle for reproductive rights and justice, but for these advocates, small victories are proof that their diligence and grit is worthwhile.
“We’re here because want to be able to decide our own fates,” said Rivas. “We want to have bodily autonomy, no matter our race, our incomes, or our documentation status. Everyone deserves that.”

__________________

Ruben Garza and Cathryn Torres are content creators at Neta.