Photo-Illustration: Josiah Whitfield; Photos: Getty
life after roe

The Crisis Pregnancy Center Trap

And how not to fall for it.

Photo-Illustration: Josiah Whitfield; Photos: Getty

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Type “abortion clinic near me” into your browser, and the search engine will likely return some murky results. Websites that ask if you are pregnant and “Feeling overwhelmed?” or “Looking for an abortion?” — without actually allowing you to schedule one. You may see abortion mentioned only in the context of “risks.” Or you may just see a flurry of “free” services: pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and counseling, all at zero cost. But “if a site or a center offers only free services,” says Andrea Swartzendruber, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, it may be a sign that you’ve found your way to a crisis pregnancy center: a sham medical practice designed to lure people considering abortions and pressure them into birth. Often, Swartzendruber explains, “there aren’t telltale signs” to differentiate a real clinic from a fake one, but “there could be hints.”

Swartzendruber and her colleague Dr. Danielle Lambert track national CPC openings and closures on crisispregnancycentermap.com. In 2020, they counted more than 2,500 centers across every state — at least three for each remaining abortion clinic. CPCs have been known to open next door or across the street, mirroring providers in both appearance and marketing.

Many CPCs have been moving away from religious identifiers and clear affiliations with anti-abortion organizations. Bibles, crosses, and prayer hands may be visible once you get inside, but they now use “words like ‘clinic’ and ‘health care’ in their names, and they are advertising more medical services,” Swartzendruber says. A rising percentage offer ultrasounds, even if staff cosplaying as doctors in white coats may not actually be authorized to perform them. Volunteers may talk about HIPAA, but they aren’t bound by it, meaning the intimate details (on religion, on the partner in a pregnancy) that visitors supply won’t necessarily stay private. CPCs usually follow up, and some will badger people for weeks after a visit. Just like “you walk into Home Depot and you get a bunch of advertisements about lawn mowers,” says Heather Shumaker, director of state abortion access at the National Women’s Law Center, they seem to “have that same sort of mobile surveillance capability.”

To that end, Shumaker recommends going straight to a reliable source: ineedana.com, the National Abortion Federation, the Abortion Care Network, and the Cut all maintain databases that allow users to look up providers by location. Abortion funds, in addition to providing financial assistance, can point patients in the right direction (for more support options, see p.48). Although a provider or a fund may also mention “options,” funds usually state that they support the right to an abortion, while providers will list the types of termination services they offer along with the time frame. CPCs, by contrast, traffic in misinformation. “If you see anything about ‘abortion reversal,’ ” says Shumaker, “that would be a CPC.” The same goes for holding up trauma, “post-abortion syndrome, or connections between breast cancer and abortion” as fact, she adds.

CPC staff also tend to deflect when asked about abortion. Swartzendruber suggests asking staff directly if they offer abortions: “If you’re not getting to a yes or a no, that might be a hint.” If you have to ask yourself whether a provider is legitimate, the answer is in the question.

The Crisis Pregnancy Center Trap