Crisis pregnancy centers should be accountable for lies, misinformation

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“Pregnant? Scared? Need Help?” This phrase, or a similar variation, is plastered on advertisements across Connecticut, most frequently on billboards and the back of buses. Behind these seemingly innocuous ads are crisis pregnancy centers — anti-abortion organizations that pose as legitimate reproductive health clinics.

In 2013, I began going undercover into crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs, as a volunteer with NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut. Along with a partner, I went into centers posing as a woman who thought she might be pregnant in order to see what type of advice CPCs would provide.

Undercover visits were just one part of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut’s investigation into CPCs that culminated in the report, The Right to Lie: Crisis Pregnancy Centers in Connecticut. The report found that 95 percent of Connecticut’s CPCs provide false or misleading information about abortion and other reproductive health topics.

Over and over again at my undercover visits, the counsel of CPC staff members consisted of little but lies and misinformation. When I asked about abortion, my questions were usually answered with a lengthy list of false or exaggerated risks about the procedure; at one visit it was quite literally a list read from a binder. The most common lies were that abortion causes infertility, breast cancer, and mental health issues, none of which is true.

Some lies seemed purposefully crafted to terrify me, such as when a CPC staff member said that having an abortion could lead a woman to abuse her future children.

CPCs’ bad advice also didn’t stop with abortion. I was surprised at how often CPCs discussed hormonal birth control, or rather, “poison,” as it was referred to at one visit. A frequently repeated claim was that women who take birth control would inevitably find themselves infertile when they are ready to have children. One staff member told me this particular fate often befalls “career women,” a statement that made me wonder what decade I was in.

While my experiences, and those of other volunteers, were certainly shocking, they’re also consistent with findings of previous investigations and studies on CPCs. In 2006, a congressional report found that federally funded CPCs were providing false information about abortion.

More recently, a 2015 study in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology concluded that CPC websites provide inaccurate and harmful information about reproductive health. To boot, investigations into CPCs by many NARAL Pro-Choice America state affiliates have provided evidence of a nation-wide trend of lies, misinformation, and deceptive advertising.

Luckily for me, I can look back and laugh at the most absurd statements I heard at CPCs. I was not scared, confused, and desperate like the people genuinely seeking a CPC’s help would likely be. I can only imagine that if I were a young woman who came to a CPC sincerely looking for answers, I would be terrified.

CPCs prey on people who are less likely to have access to healthcare, such as young women, women of color, and lower-income women. For those for whom accessing healthcare is already a struggle, walking into a CPC when they were looking for a legitimate medical provider could be devastating. In addition to the dangerous lies about abortion, birth control, and sexually transmitted infections, going to a CPC delays pregnant women from seeking real medical care.

We should hold CPCs accountable for their lies and deception because of a basic value: Everyone deserves accurate medical information about their reproductive healthcare options.

The logical public health outcomes of CPCs’ misinformation are dire. Their lies about birth control put women at risk of additional unexpected pregnancies as well as sexually transmitted infections. Pregnant women with dangerous complications such as an ectopic pregnancy could face serious harm if they delay seeking medical care, which CPCs often advised was unnecessary. And in the case that a woman does decide to carry her pregnancy to term, CPCs may prevent a woman from receiving proper prenatal care and being screened for potential health risks.

Connecticut has long been a national leader in reproductive rights, yet as long as CPCs are allowed to operate in relative secrecy, without oversight or regulation, they threaten all the progress we’ve made. The right to have an abortion means little when CPCs are falsely telling women the procedure is dangerous or deadly.

Now that we have clear evidence that Connecticut CPCs lie about medical information while posing as real providers, we have an obligation to hold them accountable for their actions. Connecticut women deserve medically accurate, unbiased healthcare, and they deserve better than CPCs.

Tess Koenigsmark is an organizer with NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut.

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