While abortion clinics diminish, crisis pregnancy centers flourish

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Graphic by Ramiro Ferrando

The last private clinic performing surgical abortions in Champaign, Illinois, closed this fall after years of picketing by pro-life groups and an attempted bombing of the facility in 2017.

Although a woman can still receive a medical abortion – which is done by taking the “abortion pill” , a combination of two separate medications – at Planned Parenthood , a woman in the Champaign-Urbana area who is more than 10 weeks pregnant would have to travel nearly 90 miles to Springfield for surgical abortion.

At the same time crisis pregnancy centers – which counsel clients against abortion – are flourishing not only in in Illinois, but also nationally.

While the state of Illinois is often called an abortion “oasis” in the Midwest because of easier access to abortions than neighboring states, there are 86 crisis pregnancy centers – known as CPCs – compared with 25 abortion clinics in Illinois. Champaign, Illinois, has two of those centers.

Indeed, nationally the centers have grown from about 2,000  in 2010 to more than 2,500in 2018.

Karla Walsh, director of one of the two centers in Champaign, Birthright Champaign, said the center’s main goal is “to help women” by providing babies’ clothes, diapers, pregnancy tests, information, and non-professional counseling.

Karla Walsh, director of one of the two crisis pregnancy centers in Champaign, Illinois, Birthright Champaign, on Oct. 10, 2018. Photo by Ramiro Ferrando.

When women are thinking of getting abortions, Walsh said the center only wants to make sure the women make informed decisions and know about other possibilities, such as adoption. 

Walsh said the center’s funding budget is all from private donors, and all of the center workers are volunteers. As for birth control counseling, she said workers “do not discuss contraceptives with clients, because that is a matter they should discuss with their physician.”

Funding for the centers generally comes from private donors. However, in states such as Texas or Missouri, they might get considerable government funding.

Most centers are under the umbrella of one four nationwide non-profits organizations: The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), Care Net, Heartbeat International, and Birthright.

The centers have come under fire, not for their advocacy, but for their methods of persuading women not to get an abortion and for counseling that is against scientific evidence.

“Their goal is to dissuade pregnant women of getting an abortion,” said Andrea Swartzendruber, who heads the project Crisis Pregnancy Center Map and is a epidemiology researcher and assistant professor at the University of Georgia.

The pro-choice organization National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) has gone further in its criticism, calling CPCs “fake health clinics.”

Local criticism

“I think it’s a shame that more and more states are restricting abortion access and I think it’s going to give places like these further ground to be popping up more and more,” said Claudia Lennhoff, Executive Director of the Champaign County Health Care Consumers.

“From a health care perspective, I see little value on them,” Lennhoff said, addingLennhoff said the centers probably do more harm than good.

Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of the Champaign County Health Care Consumers, on Dec. 13, 2018. Photo by Ramiro Ferrando

“I think they are not regulated strong enough.”

Lennhoff said that if there was some other equivalent organization in health care that prevented  people from getting a service that they wanted and needed, then communities might not tolerate that organization’s existence

“Even the term CPC is designed to target women who feel they are in crisis for virtue of being pregnant”.

Few states have more abortion providers

Only in California, Maine, Nevada and New Jersey are the number of abortion clinics greater than the number of centers.

While doing research on CPCs a few years ago, Swartzendruber found out there were no reliable data about the total number and location of them. That set her and her team to the task of identifying every CPC across the U.S. They also wanted to provide a tool that would allow people seeking health services to be able to set CPCs apart from abortion clinics.

The result of that work took the form of a website showcasing an interactive map with the locations of every center across the U.S. The updated map shows currently 2,537.

However, other databases such as one by Heartbeat International show more than 3,700 CPCs across the U.S.

The centers have been criticized for using deceptive strategies to attract women seeking abortions.

“They sometimes admit to doing so,” Upadhyay said. She and her research team found it extremely challenging to determine whether some sites were abortion providers or CPCs.

Setting their locations near abortion clinics and failing to admit that they don’t provide abortions over the phone are just some of them.

“They do that to create confusion and pour patients into the clinic,” said Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues manager in the Guttmacher Institute.

The centers have offered more services, such as pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, according to Swartzendruber.

According to a report by the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), eighty percent of women who get ultrasounds decide to continue their pregnancies.

NIFLA calls ultrasounds “an invaluable tool in revealing the personhood of unborn children and encourages non-medicalized CPCs to embrace medical clinic status.”

The organization also offers resources and information to help CPCs in that transition.

CPCs also provide non-professional counseling as one of their main services. Several reports have showed that some of that advice is against scientific evidence.

Care Net, for example, still displays an article in their website that links abortion to breast cancer, which has been dismissed by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Accuracy of information

study from 2016 that evaluated the quality and accuracy of sexual health information on CPCs websites found several issues. For example, statements about condoms not being effective for preventing pregnancy, and misleading information about STIs and the methods to prevent them.

Another example is the issue of the risks involved in getting an abortion. A study by the same group found that these websites also included false statements linking abortion with mental health risks (not supported by APA), preterm birth, and future infertility.

Both studies showed that these same websites’ addresses are listed in resource directories for pregnant women by 12 states’ official websites.

An extensive report by the National Academy of Sciences states that the clinical evidence shows that legal abortions in the U.S. (regardless of the method) are safe and effective.

Actually, a study revealed that the risk of death of getting legal abortion is 14 times less than the one from childbirth.

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