Religious anti-abortion group to move next door to sole abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley

This is part one 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

One day March of this year, Amos Gonzalez, 39, parked his car in the Whole Woman’s Health McAllen patient parking lot. He and his friend, who has chosen to remain confidential but has given us permission to share the details of her encounter, were there so she could get an abortion.

As the two made their way to the clinic entrance, they were approached by a woman in nun’s garb who told them Whole Woman’s Health was closed due to mold growth.

“She walks up to us and asks, ‘are you looking for the entrance?’ We closed it down because of black mold. We reopened over there,” Gonzalez remembered. The woman then asked Gonzalez and his friend to follow her in Gonzalez’s car to the clinic’s temporary location. They ended up at the Sacred Heart Church, less than half a mile away.

“We parked there in the parking lot and walked into the church,” Gonzalez said. “There were a lot of nuns. They had a makeshift doctor’s office. It didn’t look official.”

Gonzalez’s gut was right. Unfortunately, the nun had just succeeded in a common crisis pregnancy center tactic: intercept unsuspecting patients outside clinics that provide abortion care and redirect them using lies or coercion. Ironically, the lie used to entrap Gonzalez and his friend applied to the McAllen Pregnancy Center (MPC), not Whole Woman’s Health. According to an August newsletter, that’s why the limited resource, nonmedical, anti-abortion organization is being temporarily housed on Sacred Heart Church property.

McAllen Pregnancy Center’s temporary location at Sacred Heart Church in downtown McAllen | Photo by Sofia Rivera

MPC opened its doors in 2008 on 12th Street in downtown McAllen, Texas, just two blocks east of Whole Woman’s Health, the Rio Grande Valley’s only reproductive health clinic that offers abortion services. One of two crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) in Hidalgo County, unlike many other centers across the country, MPC does not appear to be affiliated with any of the four major national CPC umbrella organizations in the US.

Even without national support, MPC, however, isn’t exactly struggling. For the last decade, MPC has continuously sent staff and volunteers the short distance to Whole Woman’s Health property to intercept patients seeking abortion care. The desire to stop MPC from deceiving clients is one of the reasons volunteers with the South Texans for Reproductive Justice (STRJ) show up at Whole Woman’s every morning, ready to protect the access rights and privacy of patients. Soon, however, more and more people might find themselves in situations similar to that of Gonzalez and his friend.

Why? MPC is moving. Not just that, but in line with a national trend in CPC tactics, it’s moving as close to Whole Woman’s as it can. Three doors down or a mere 180 feet down the street to be exact.

McAllen Pregnancy Center’s future location | Photo by Frank Segovia

Local pro-choice clinic escorts, who volunteer their time to help Whole Woman’s Health patients avoid invasion of privacy by MPC staff, say this move will give the crisis pregnancy center unprecedented access to patients.

According to them, MPC’s new proximity will allow their staff more freedom to use established schemes like surrounding and shouting at patients, holding graphic signs falsely depicting abortion, handing out pamphlets containing medical misinformation meant to shame those receiving abortion care, impersonating nurses and doctors, and, as in Gonzalez’s case, physically misdirecting clients.

In a written statement to Neta, a spokesperson for Whole Woman’s Health echoed this concern.

“Our patients are already having to deal with increasing numbers of protestors outside our clinic who are aggressive and intimidating. They shouldn’t have to deal with that level of harassment, and now we anticipate that this will only intensify once the fake women’s center reopens.”

Yolanda Chapa, founder of McAllen Pregnancy Center, wearing a medical coat | Photo by Melissa Arjona

With the move, comes the risk of more than just a waste of time.

When Gonzalez and his friend arrived at Sacred Heart Church, he remembered the nun led them through recreational areas of the church to a makeshift office. There, Gonzalez’s friend signed paperwork that included her name, birthdate, and other personal information. When asked for a urine sample, Gonzalez’s friend was handed a small, red plastic cup.

That’s when Gonzalez went outside to make a call to Whole Woman’s Health.

As soon as Gonzalez spoke to Whole Woman’s Health staff and realized they had been tricked, he returned to his friend’s side and told her what happened.

“She was mad, and she stormed out upset that they had wasted our time,” he said.

But even after their charade had been exposed, the nuns continued to harass them, Gonzalez said.

“The nun followed us out the whole way, all the way to the car, saying ‘there’s a life inside of you, God loves you.’ Even at the car door, she was hugging [my friend] and not letting her go. She wouldn’t let her go. She kept holding on to her, even though we wanted to leave.”

Gonzalez said he and his friend were very alarmed and were in complete disbelief at the situation; both of them felt angry at having been so purposely deceived. This story of an invasion of privacy and unwanted physical contact justified by religious ideology could become more commonplace when MPC moves three buildings down from Whole Woman’s Health.

Currently, MPC’s website lists services ranging from ultrasounds and pregnancy testing to licensed professional counseling and a “baby boutique.” A quick call to McAllen Pregnancy Center, however, reveals that the ultrasounds offered are not for medical use. When I called MPC to ask about services, the person who answered the phone let me know in Spanish, “The thing is, we’re not a medical clinic. So if you need an ultrasound, you must go elsewhere.” I was also informed that although MPC doesn’t staff a licensed therapist at the center or any medical personnel at all, they offer referrals.

Having an ultrasound machine but no doctor to interpret the sonograms is not uncommon for CPCs. Ultrasounds are not used by CPC staff for medical purposes but as an opportunity to dissuade a pregnant person from seeking abortion services.

Whole Woman’s Health staff is familiar with CPC tactics and are aware of that McAllen Pregnancy Center is moving down the street from their McAllen location. As is to be expected, they are concerned about the amount of misinformation MPC will distribute to women and people seeking abortion services because they know MPC will do everything in its power to stop individuals from obtaining the abortion care services they need.

Indeed, perhaps the most telling and ominous tenet of MPC’s mission to stop abortion is their sense that nothing they do— whether it’s to lie, deceive, shame, harass, assault, distribute medical misinformation, or violate privacy— is worse than the abortion care happening inside reproductive healthcare clinics.

Illustrating this doctrine, one self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselor,” who is an anti-abortion protester at Whole Woman’s Health, said during a discussion panel about MPC, “This ministry is very different from all ministries because it is a matter of life and death.”

According to MPC staff, their new building is undergoing renovations. No official move-in date has been released.

Documents acquired by Neta show that the McAllen Pregnancy Center purchased the building at 816 S. Main Street on March 10 for $189,000.

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