“Gloria” (not her real name) was sixteen when she entered a “crisis pregnancy center” and said she was afraid she was pregnant. The only volunteer there, a sweet woman behind an uncluttered desk, asked her to confirm her pregnancy with a urine test. When it came back positive, Gloria cried. She wasn’t ready to have a baby, and she couldn’t afford one. Whatever happened next, Gloria told the woman, she wasn’t going to be a mother. She needed an abortion, she said.
But Gloria wasn’t going to get one there. The clinic was actually an antiabortion pregnancy center, where staff and volunteers attempt to talk women out of abortions.
The centers, which operate largely on a bait-and-switch model and intercept clients intending to find an abortion clinic, have now become easier to find than abortion services themselves. There are over 2,500 centers in the United States. These crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs, outnumber abortion clinics by about seven hundred, according to Pam Belluck of The New York Times. But they are not just quaint small-town, mom-and-pop operations. They are big business, and they can be found in unexpected places . . . even in Los Angeles.
Normally considered a liberal bubble, Southern California is known for its progressive politics, and most would expect it to be full of pro-choice proponents and health centers offering speedy and discreet abortion services. In reality, although California has some of the strongest abortion access in the United States with 160 clinics offering abortion services, it has antiabortion pregnancy centers in even greater force. Today, there are over two hundred CPCs in California, and at least thirty of them are in Los Angeles County. While these centers receive federal tax breaks, in California they may receive no state grants. So they turn to private donors, inside and outside California, to fund their missions within liberal Los Angeles and “convert the lost.” From God’s country, donors can impact leftist L.A. by writing a check.
As Gloria sat in the exam room, she pondered her options aloud. The volunteer tried to steer her further and further from the option she actually wanted. Gloria was frustrated and becoming angrier by the second.
But Gloria wasn’t pregnant. Not even close. She had substituted a pregnant woman’s urine for her own for the pregnancy test. She had come to the center on a “muckraking” assignment from her high-school English teacher, who had instructed each student in the class to pick an organization or company that might be doing something unethical and “sting” the place. Gloria immediately thought of the center. She had always been interested in abortion access, and she knew how to identify an antiabortion center in one quick glance.
CPCs advertise free pregnancy tests, make vague promises about their services, and often are just a few steps from an actual abortion provider, Gloria had learned. She located a center quickly. As soon as her test came back positive, the woman working there dropped the act. She was no longer a potential abortion provider: she was here to talk Gloria out of ending her pregnancy.
The woman comforted Gloria as she cried in the middle of the exam room, which she described to me as “an Anne Geddes nightmare,” referencing the photographer known for placing infants in unlikely places, such as in the middle of a tulip. But the volunteer wasted no time; before Gloria could process what was happening, she had turned on a video about the horrors of abortion. “The video . . . basically misrepresented the size of the fetus, said that the zygote can feel pain, it’s got a heartbeat, it’s thinking. That so many women are injured by them [abortions], so many women are traumatized by them, there’s a higher rate of breast cancer [among women who have had abortions],” Gloria reported. That’s typical of these centers. When NARAL Pro-Choice America sent undercover activists to CPCs across California, every single clinic gave false or misleading information about abortion, from telling women that they would ruin their fertility to suggesting that women who have abortions are putting themselves at risk of suicide (false and false, by the way).
Gloria was living in a small, conservative town when she performed her muckraking assignment. She turned in her paper, saw it printed in the school newspaper, and went back to her ordinary sixteen-year-old life. Until the letter came.
The center was threatening to sue the school newspaper for libel if Gloria didn’t publish a retraction. They sent the message through one of Gloria’s teachers, a board member of the very clinic she had infiltrated.
“He asked me, didn’t I know that abortion was murder? This was a public school,” she said. Gloria, scared and sixteen, posted a retraction. From then on, she knew these centers meant business. But they didn’t want anyone to know exactly what that business was. Gloria became an abortion-access advocate. One of her main passions: blowing the lid off CPCs.
Gloria’s got her work cut out for her. Since her teenage sting operation, antiabortion pregnancy centers have become a major enterprise.
And sometimes their underhanded conversion tactics succeed.
Peggy Farren was twenty-six and engaged when she discovered she was pregnant. Her fiancé balked at the idea of having a child and insisted that she terminate the pregnancy. Unsure of what to do but willing to consider all of her options, Farren turned to a coworker who suggested she go to the pro-life clinic down the road. There, the staff helped her to find a doctor who would see her for free. They helped her find housing, gave her a car seat for her baby-to-be, and found her a teaching hospital where she could deliver her child for a small fee. She says these kindnesses helped turn her into a “feminist for life” (which is to say not a lifelong feminist, but rather a feminist opposed to abortion).
“I was pro-choice before that experience,” Farren told me. I asked her what that meant to her, and she clarified that she mostly hadn’t thought about it before then. Why would she? She hadn’t needed to. But once she was pregnant, she had to confront the pro- and antiabortion divide. And she chose a side.
“While Planned Parenthood tried to prey on my bad situation to make money, these volunteers all helped me!” she said. “They didn’t get paid. They did it out of love.” Then she echoed the motto of Feminists for Life: “Women deserve better than abortion.”
But Gloria’s experience wasn’t the same. Even though she wasn’t really pregnant, she was overwhelmed by the information on the video and thought of the shoes she would be in if she really had been pregnant when she walked through that door. She said she would need time to think about it. The sympathetic staff woman feebly said she would get Gloria some prenatal vitamins. When she came back, she had a pair of rainbow-colored crocheted booties in her hand. “Oh, we’re out of prenatal vitamins,” she said, “But I brought you these.” She handed the booties to Gloria.
And so, Gloria sat with a pair of booties in her hand, staring at the symbol of a baby she would never have. It was a gift that she was sure was intended to make her picture the child she was ethically obligated to birth. A $2 gift to offset the $241,000 it would take to raise the child for eighteen years. She left.
Nine years later, Gloria really did become unexpectedly pregnant. She didn’t even consider a crisis pregnancy center. She went immediately to Planned Parenthood and terminated the pregnancy. When I told Gloria about Farren’s experience, she paused thoughtfully. “Well, that may have been her experience thirty years ago,” she said (Farren’s son is now twenty-eight), “but it’s not now.”
Gloria has been volunteering for abortion access ever since her own eye-opening experience, and she has seen these centers firsthand. She says that they are typically privately funded and shoddily organized. And most important, their purpose differs from the purpose of the woman entering their doors: she may come to end her pregnancy, but the center is there to stop her at all costs.
That is reflected in the Yelp reviews for the crisis pregnancy centers across Los Angeles. One such review reads, “I came here for information about abortions. The ‘nurse’ spent an HOUR convincing me not to get one, even bringing herself to tears in her efforts!”
I stopped by one clinic in the heart of Hollywood. It was called “Hollywood Women’s Center of Los Angeles,” and on a large blue and white sign it boasted free pregnancy tests. The lettering and the color scheme looked strikingly familiar . . . almost too familiar. Then it struck me. Less than a block away, I saw the same design on a familiar sign tucked into a mini-mall: “Planned Parenthood.” The placement and coloring were perfect for catching the attention of a woman walking through a busy parking area off the major thoroughfare, trying to find her way to her appointment.
I stopped in to visit the clinic’s neighbors, a coffee shop with a bohemian feel. Two men in berets sat leaning against a wall, gesticulating wildly and talking about Woody Allen. “Do you talk to your neighbors at all?” I asked the barista as I dove into a chocolate mini-cupcake.
“Oh, them?” she said, eyeing the wall between her establishment and the next. “No, I don’t talk to them.”
“Do you know what they do?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “they trick women into not having abortions.”
The center is part of a network of offices in Los Angeles called Avenues Pregnancy Clinics, and their self-description on Yelp reads “We are a medically licensed non-profit organization dedicated to serving the needs of anyone facing an unplanned pregnancy. We are committed to educating our patients on all pregnancy options and providing free and confidential services.”
But their Form 990, the tax document all nonprofits must file with the government at year’s end, tells a different story. There, Avenues says that “the organization has one sole purpose: to provide services to expectant mothers” and explains that they “compassionately present Biblical truth resulting in changed lives to the Glory of God.” Rather different from “educating patients on all pregnancy options.” The bait may be shallow, but the switch is deep.
Katherine Kramer, an abortion provider who runs a network devoted to unmasking crisis pregnancy centers, told me that switch didn’t surprise her at all. “I had a woman report that a CPC did an ultrasound and that she saw a ‘live baby with a beating heart’ but it turned out she had an early ectopic [pregnancy] . . . I never understood what happened there. My guess is that they showed her a videotape of a normal pregnancy on the ultrasound machine.” A lie for a life.
Kramer says CPCs have actually done the opposite of what they are intended to do; they have delayed abortions, making them more dangerous, more serious, and performed further along in the fetus’s development. “Most women, by the time they come to me, have wasted weeks with the CPC,” she said.
I contacted Avenues Pregnancy Clinics to get their perspective on their controversial mission. The front desk referred me to the president, who didn’t return my calls. E-mails went unanswered.
Finally, I called again, this time saying that I would like to hear more about volunteering. I got someone on the line. “I’m sorry, we aren’t accepting volunteers at this time,” she said, “but we appreciate it.” And she hung up.
It seems the crisis pregnancy-center culture is not an easy one to enter, perhaps because there are so many people—like me—trying to expose their real objectives. When your entire business operates on a bit of a trick, having too many people in on the game may be a death knell. There are only two ways to get inside, it seems: be pregnant or pretend to be.
Gloria tried the second way. And now, she tries to raise awareness of their true purpose so fewer people will go in the first way.
But in Los Angeles, where business is booming, it only takes a blue and white sign a half-block walk from Planned Parenthood to make Gloria’s job that much harder.
Belluck, Pam. “Abortion Fight: Helping Hands Gain Influence.” The New York Times, January 5, 2013.
Charles, Vignetta E., Chelsa B. Polis, Srinivas K. Sridhara, and Robert W. Blum. “Abortion and Long-Term Mental Health Outcomes: A Systematic Review of the Evidence.” Contraception, December 2008.
Guttmacher Institute. “Induced Abortion in the United States,” July 2014. http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html, accessed November 10, 2014.
United States Department of Agriculture. “Expenditures on Children by Families.” http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/expenditures_on_children_by_families/crc2013.pdf, accessed November 10, 2014.
Carrie Poppy is an investigative journalist, writer, radio personality, and comic actor. She is the host of the podcast Oh No, Ross and Carrie and a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine.