Saturday, October 23, 2010

Crisis Pregnancy Centers and the Religious Right

An HBO trailer for the documentary 12th and Delaware.

On Saturday morning, I manned an information table at a community health fair for a non-profit I volunteer with. As luck would have it, my table was next to a table for the local crisis pregnancy center (CPC), bedecked with baby magazines, healthy pregnancy pamphlets, and sets of plastic fetuses showing stages of fetal development. (The fact that these were the same type of plastic fetuses that Lou Engle showed to children in Jesus Camp was a ominous sign.)

I played dumb and struck up a conversation with the CPC volunteer at the table, asking her what her organization did. She replied that the CPC provided consultations, pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and donations to pregnant women, describing the CPC in clinical terms. Later, when she briefly stepped away from her table, I took a few innocuous pamphlets entitled "Healthy Pregnancy" and "The First 9 Months". When I looked at the back covers, guess who published the pamphlets? Focus on the Family!

The "Healthy Pregnancy" pamphlet was straightforward enough, presenting advice on prenatal care, nutrition, exercise, and unhealthy substances to avoid during pregnancy. I paused, however, at a passage that advised pregnant women to tune out or excuse themselves from women who inflict childbirth "war stories" on them -- as if the dangers and strains of pregnancy were inappropriate topics for polite company. The final page admitted that the female reader "probably didn't plan this pregnancy", but encouraged them to give their babies the best possible start in the womb, whether they choose to be a single parent, marry, or give the baby up for adoption. The "A" word -- abortion -- was never mentioned, much less entertained as an option.

The introduction to "The First 9 Months" pamphlet was more religious in tone, marveling at the creation of new life understood only by "the Creator Himself". The pamphlet devoted a page to acknowledging the fear that the reader might feel (presumably about an unintended pregnancy), suggesting that it is intended for women with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies. The rest of the pamphlet contained color pictures of fetuses in various stages of development, accompanied by detailed physiological descriptions of fetal development. The goal, it seemed, was to persuade the pregnant female reader to keep her fetus and give birth to a baby. The back of the pamphlet included contact information for Focus on the Family as well as a website for a Focus on the Family project called Heartlink.

I visited the Heartlink website, and as I expected, it was anti-abortion, anti-emergency contraception, and conservatively Christian. One section of the website featured PDF pamphlets about the supposed trauma caused by abortion, misinformation about emergency contraception, and the supposed evils of RU-486. Thus, the CPC whose table I visited was distributing materials from a anti-abortion, fundamentalist Christian group with a disturbing political agenda.

It gets worse. Heartlink oversees a project called Operation Ultrasound, which provides grants for ultrasound equipment to qualifying "pregnancy resource centers". The overt intent of encouraging ultrasounds, stated in black-and-white on the website, was so they could be used to discourage pregnant women from seeking abortion. To receive Operation Ultrasound grants, clinics must meet three out of five of the following chilling criteria: (1) qualifying clinics must serve a metropolitan population of at least 500,000, (2) public funding for abortion is available beyond cases of rape or danger to the life of the mother, (3) the state in which the clinic is located received an "A" or "B" in the NARAL Report Card, (4) the city in which the clinic is located has four or more public abortion providers, and (5) the city has a population of 4-year university students of at least 15,000 students ages 18-26. Heartlink gives special consideration to clinics in cities that have been "targeted" for "high-volume abortions" by Planned Parenthood or another abortion provider. Thus, Focus on the Family's Heartlink branch is funding clinics that try to prevent women from exercising their right to choose. To boot, they are devoting money to areas with lots of young women and reproductive health provider presence, indicating that they want grantees to strategically compete with abortion providers.

I knew that the Religious Right exerted itself through CPCs, but I didn't realize it went this deep!

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Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) are essential anti-choice organizations presenting themselves as women's health clinics. According to Legal Momentum, CPCs first emerged in the 1970s in response to Roe V. Wade as a strategy to dissuade women from getting abortions. They are highly controversy due to evidence that they promote anti-abortion propaganda and provide inaccurate medical information to pregnant women and girls.

To boot, federal and state funds have subsidized these dubious clinics for years, according to articles in Mother Jones and Ms. Magazine. Fortunately, some jurisdictions are demanding accountability from CPCs. Baltimore was the first city in the nation to pass an ordinance requiring CPCs to disclose that they do not provide abortion or contraception. New York City and Austin have also proposed similar legislation for strict disclosure requirements.

Religious Right organizations have provided earnest support to CPCs. I have already described Focus on the Family's Heartlink project, but it is hardly alone. The Family Research Council published its "Pregnancy Resource Center Report" in 2009, which waxes poetic about the work that CPCs have done. Care Net, another anti-choice organization that supports CPCs, describes itself in Christian terms on its website. Conservative Christian adoption agencies have often collaborated with CPCs in convincing women to submit babies for adoption rather than abort, as Kathryn Joyce discussed in her 2009 expose at the Nation.

In order for pregnant women to make their own choices about pregnancies, they need accurate information about all of their options. CPCs, in providing inaccurate information and propaganda, do a grave disservice to pregnant clients. As one of the many tools in the Religious Right's toolbox, they deserve our attention. Likewise, legitimate organizations such as Planned Parenthood that provide comprehensive reproductive services deserve our support. Get informed, and get active!

Videos on CPCs are available at the links below:

HBO: 12th and Delaware

Democracy Now interview with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (directors of 12th and Delaware): Part I and Part II.

Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, Inc.: Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs)

The following reports, articles, and websites also provide information on CPCs:

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform: False and Misleading Health Information Provided by Federally Funded Pregnancy Resource Centers

NARAL: The Truth About Crisis Pregnancy Centers

NARAL Pro-Choice California Foundation: Unmasking Fake Clinics: The Truth About Crisis Pregnancy Centers in California

NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland Fund: Maryland Crisis Pregnancy Center Investigations: The Truth Revealed

The Nation: Shotgun Adoption

Ms. Magazine: Getting Crisis Pregnancy Centers to Confess

Crisis Pregnancy Center Watch

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