Lies, deception, and violence: The history of so-called ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’

This is part two of three from our series “A breakdown of ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’ in the Rio Grande Valley”. To read more and view the rest of the series, click here

Crisis Pregnancy Centers or CPCs are organizations that offer limited pregnancy resources and whose main (and usually covert) goal is to deter women from seeking abortion care. Unlike campaigns with a public health benefit such as those encouraging smoking cessation or sexually transmitted infection (STI) screenings, the goals of crisis pregnancy centers are solely ideology-driven. With no medical basis for their negative claims about abortion, CPCs thus frequently present disproven, flawed data to justify their anti-abortion stance.

Though they rarely employ medical staff, many CPCs use rhetoric or operate out of buildings that mimic medical establishments, thereby feigning credibility. Moreover, because they market their services so ambiguously, people often erroneously believe these centers offer low-cost pathways to abortion care. Unfortunately, those with little money or few resources are particularly vulnerable to such tactics.

Today, crisis pregnancy centers in Texas are endorsed by government agencies and funded by tax dollars. To understand the multi-faceted effects of state support, it’s important to know the history of CPCs and how they gained a powerful foothold throughout the country and along the US/Mexico border.

The building blocks of crisis pregnancy centers

In the 1960s and 1970s, abortion had not yet become the political platform for religious candidates that it is today. In fact, it would be three decades before anti-choice rhetoric was backed by government money. In the time leading to this point, some national political occurrences began to shape an Evangelical Christian voting bloc.

As reported by Sabrina Tavernise for the New York Times, Evangelical Christians were outraged when, in a freshly desegregated United States, the IRS began to revoke tax-exempt status from the all-white, church-run schools where they sent their children.

This resentment for government interference was channeled into the Moral Majority, an organization founded by white, male religious activists and politicians in 1979 to catalyze the conservative vote. Founders of the Majority cleverly identified the fulcrum of a guaranteed conservative Republican voting bloc: the anti-abortion stance of Evangelical Christians. They wielded their influence at churches and conferences, fascinating anti-abortion congregants across the nation.

Emboldened by the passion the Majority’s anti-abortion rhetoric sparked in Evangelicals, co-founder Paul Weyrich said in a 1980 speech, “So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote . . . As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Weyrich’s words are still consequential today, as voter identification laws imposed by conservative politicians continue to deny many the right to vote.

Another legacy of the Moral Majority is the Christian ministry that would become known as ‘sidewalk counseling,’ a euphemism given to the harassing, deceitful tactics used outside of clinics that provide abortion care in attempts to deter people from receiving abortion care.

Today, most CPCs in the US function under larger anti-choice umbrella organizations like CareNet or Birthright International, both of which are among some of the first CPC networks founded in the country and that are still running today. Crisis pregnancy centers in the Rio Grande Valley don’t appear to be associated with any national network.

Pro-life violence and crisis pregnancy centers

The Evangelical Christian voting bloc proved a powerful foundation for anti-abortion politics. With the consolidation of its power, however, came violence.

There were 25 bombings at clinics providing abortion care in the decade following Roe, but it wasn’t until the 1990s when anti-abortion activists began photographing fetal tissue stolen from reproductive health clinics that pro-life murder intensified, prompting federal legislation to protect clinics from protestors. Unfortunately, in the decade that followed violence against abortion providers would continue to increase, even after the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994.

According to a report by The National Abortion Federation, between 2000 and 2009, violence against abortion providers peaked. During that period, at least 3,478 instances of violence and 117,444 disruptions at clinics were reported, triple the number of incidents of the previous decade.

Among one those victims to anti-choice acts of violence was Dr. George Tiller, an abortion care provider who in 2009 was murdered in his church in Wichita, Kansas. Prior to his murder, Dr. Tiller had been the focus of a 4-year smear campaign against him on national television by journalist Bill O’Reilly.

Most recently, in 2015, three people were murdered at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. The assailant shouted, “No more baby parts!” during the attack, referencing doctored videos created by anti-abortion extremists to convince the public that Planned Parenthood was illegally profiting from sales of fetal tissue.

McAllen Pregnancy Center pamphlet distributed by anti-abortion protestors outside of Whole Woman’s Health McAllen | Photo by Sofia Rivera

Pro-life images that first appeared during this time are still used by anti-choice activists and CPCs today, to elicit shame in those seeking abortion care and to convince others that abortion is tantamount to murder. In McAllen, Texas, for example, anti-abortion protestors, some employed at McAllen Pregnancy Center, one of Hidalgo County’s two CPCs, are frequently seen holding graphic, often false, depictions of abortion.

State and federal support for crisis pregnancy centers

Despite the pro-life violence and toxic anti-abortion rhetoric of the 1990s, after the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush’s administration began funneling millions of federal dollars into abstinence-only education programs and crisis pregnancy centers by proxy.

In 2006, Texas followed other state legislatures and began using Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) funding for CPCs; since then almost $39 million has been taken from TANF and used in the state program Alternatives to Abortion.

Source: Texas Health and Human Services, Alternatives to Abortion Program

In July 2017, the Trump administration also halted over $200 million in funding for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and handed over $3 million to CPCs. At the same time, the Trump administration also proposed new rules that barring federal funding for any clinic that offers information or referrals regarding abortion care.

Given the strong financial support lent to CPCs by the state and federal government, it is no surprise that in Texas, state agencies literally produce and distribute abortion misinformation. Indeed, in Texas, all by law all doctors providing abortion care are required to show patients a Health Services Department booklet paradoxically titled “A Woman’s Right to Know.” The booklet is rife with misreports and has been widely denounced by doctors and public health experts. Among the untruths in the booklet are claims that abortion causes breast cancer, infertility, and mental health issues. Conclusive studies and medical convenings, however, have yielded real results: the claims aren’t true.

The effects of anti-abortion misinformation and the resultant stigma are innumerable and hit community people the hardest. Rockie Gonzalez, co-founder and board member of Frontera Fund, an organization that funds the costs of abortion care for anyone in need, explains, “We have callers that don’t even know abortion is legal. Some of our callers think they are likely to die from abortion and that they’ll leave their children behind.”

Ideology over humanity for undocumented, pregnant minors

The impact of CPCs extends well beyond the citizens of Texas and the country. Undocumented people are also among those also subject to restricted abortion access and CPC misinformation.

In 2017, at least 420 pregnant minors were in the custody of the Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR). In October 2017, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit when one of these minors, referred to on court documents as Jane Doe, was denied access to abortion care by ORR staff. Doe would eventually get her abortion but three more pregnant minors would come forward within a month, all with the same accusations against ORR.

Court proceedings prompted by these accusations revealed pregnant minors in ORR custody were routinely denied the abortion care they requested. ORR director Scott Lloyd, who is vehemently anti-choice, objects to abortion-even in the case of rape.

December 2017 deposition of Scott Lloyd

In at least one recorded case, a pregnant minor was forced to visit a CPC when she requested an abortion. There, non-medical staff performed an unnecessary ultrasound. Court records show that local detention centers were ordered by Lloyd via email to send minors who request abortion to Catholic Charities locations in San Juan and Brownsville for pregnancy counseling services.

In March 2018, District Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled in favor of bodily autonomy and reproductive justice: ORR cannot create any official policy blocking minors from receiving abortion care. Even with this ruling, however, it’s hard to know whether or not minors are still being denied their abortions. Without oversight, minors and the advocacy of lawyers, minors could still be forced to visit CPCs and coerced out of their autonomy.

CPCs continue to evolve in their scope and rhetoric with plenty of support

Unfortunately, not all court proceedings regarding abortion end in favor of informed consent. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court created a precedent and ruled CPCs don’t have to disclose to the public they are not medical establishments. This ruling was ensured by dedicated anti-choice legal teams and has emboldened the crisis pregnancy centers and the brazen harassers who support them around the country.

This ruling also sent an encouraging message to national anti-abortion organization and CPC operator Human Coalition, a group who has a major goal of disrupting internet searches for abortion. The group is fiscally supported by Texas state funding and The Thirteen Foundation, which also supports anti-LGBT hate groups and climate change denial think tanks. The Human Coalition is important and unique among CPC operators because its foundational stance is framed within a “woman-centered” rhetoric that parrots reproductive justice language. This “woman-centered” anti-abortion approach is called the New Rhetorical Strategy, a well-organized, nationwide tactical shift for anti-abortion groups which began in 2002. Christopher Baggett, national director of the Human Coalition says the group wants to show the world that abortion is “society’s easy way out— its way of avoiding grappling with the fundamental injustices driving women to abortion clinics.”

A different world

In a society where reproductive justice is achieved, abortion care would not be restricted, stigmatized or criminalized. In that world, crisis pregnancy centers would look more like all-options centers which counsel on the spectrum of pregnancy, from birth and adoption to abortion or miscarriage.

In the meantime, so that those seeking abortion care truly have informed consent, CPCs must be named for what they are: medically misinformed, ideology-driven fake clinics.

Read part three: A day in the life protecting the sole abortion clinic in a South Texas community