Crisis pregnancy centers are, in many ways, the antithesis of abortion clinics. Run by antiabortion activists, the facilities offer pregnancy tests, counseling, and baby supplies to encourage people to continue their pregnancies.
Yet a quick search for abortion services online will inevitably yield an array of crisis pregnancy centers, which now outnumber abortion clinics nationwide and in Massachusetts. Critics charge the centers are not upfront about their intent to discourage abortions and mislead and manipulate vulnerable women.
“They’re literally drawing people in to talk to them about ‘their options’ relative to being pregnant. But abortion is off the table,” said Michael S. Hutton-Woodland, a retired psychologist planning his second protest outside a Springfield antiabortion pregnancy center this weekend. “They don’t discuss it, and they steer women away from it using scare tactics or shaming tactics.”
For decades, abortion providers and supporters were on the defensive, facing aggressive protesters, sidewalk counselors, and multiple threats and acts of violence. But since the Supreme Court signaled plans to overturn Roe v. Wade in May, the tables turned. Now, crisis pregnancy centers have become the targets of public scorn, attracting protests, government scrutiny, even vandalism and violence.
“We need to shut them down here in Massachusetts. And we need to shut them down all around the country,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, a cosponsor of federal legislation that would ban deceptive advertising by crisis pregnancy centers. “You should not be able to torture a pregnant person like that”
On Wednesday, Attorney General Maura Healey issued a consumer advisory about crisis pregnancy centers — which often locate near abortion clinics and use similar names, but do not provide abortion, or typically contraception — and she encouraged anyone who had a negative experience at one to contact the office’s civil rights division.
Most centers are not staffed by licensed medical professionals and are not obligated to keep medical records private, the advisory warns. Moreover, the centers often provide inaccurate information about abortion risks and have staff who are unqualified to perform ultrasounds and give flawed or misleading results, the advisory added. Some will try to stall treatment or delay appointments to push patients beyond the point where abortion is legal, it added.
Ms. magazine recently interviewed a patient who said a crisis pregnancy center in Worcester claimed her pregnancy was a month further along than it actually was.
“In Massachusetts, you have the right to a safe and legal abortion,” Healey said in a statement. “We want to ensure that patients can protect themselves from these deceptive and coercive tactics when seeking the care they need.”
Meanwhile, crisis centers have experienced a spate of vandalism since a draft of the Supreme Court opinion was leaked in May.
Shadowy groups calling themselves “Jane’s Revenge” and “Ruth Sent Us” have taken credit for spray-painting centers with messages such as, “If abortions aren’t safe, neither are you.” Pregnancy centers in Wisconsin and Buffalo were even firebombed.
Abortion opponents say the 2,700 pregnancy centers across the country are doing invaluable work, despite the new risks. Since 2016, “real-world data shows that compassion and decency are winning, with more than 800,000 precious babies saved,” said Charles A. Donovan, president of the antiabortion Charlotte Lozier Institute.
Abortion rights supporters disavow violence and note that historically it has been directed their way. Massachusetts, in particular, is known for the 1994 attacks on two Brookline abortion clinics where a shooter killed two people and injured five.
“Our organization does not condone violence of any kind. Full stop,” said Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of Reproductive Equity Now. She rejected criticism that her organization’s recent decision to publicize a list of crisis pregnancy centers could invite more attacks.
“Violence is not the answer to this situation — but information is,” Hart Holder said.
The allegations of deceptive activities are not new. In the 1980s, Planned Parenthood in Worcester sued a crisis pregnancy center called “Problem Pregnancy” for unfair and deceptive acts, including renting space on the same floor and using the same initials, PP.
But in 1986, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that Problem Pregnancy, providing free services, could not be held liable for unfair and deceptive acts in commerce.
When Planned Parenthood moved to a new facility, Problem Pregnancy followed, relocating across the street; its website, which mimics Planned Parenthood’s double-P design and bright pink color scheme, specifically mentions abortion, saying, “We’re here to help.”
Five pages down, beside an asterisk, a disclaimer in a tiny font reads: “Problem Pregnancy does not perform or refer for abortion.”
A person who answered the phone at Problem Pregnancy’s office declined to speak with the Globe, saying she was busy with a client.
In the past, abortion rights activists have tried to challenge pregnancy centers in court, sometimes losing legal challenges on free speech grounds. California tried to require pregnancy centers to post disclaimers that staff members were unlicensed, as well as information to help patients find an abortion. But in 2018, the Supreme Court said California’s law violated the First Amendment by compelling the centers to engage in speech they found objectionable.
California, which like Massachusetts intends to preserve abortion access, recently released a consumer alert about pregnancy centers. And other municipalities, including Somerville, have adopted measures to prohibit deceptive advertising by crisis pregnancy centers.
The Easthampton City Council on Wednesday deliberated on an ordinance, similar to the one in Somerville, that would ban deceptive advertising by the centers. But that plan recently drew criticism from a church-based local organization called Bethlehem House whose defenders maintained its mission is not to deceive women into keeping pregnancies, but to help them after they give birth. Councilor Owen M. Zaret sought to reassure them that Bethlehem House would not be affected by his proposed ordinance. "
“As long as you’re not being deceptive in your advertising, you’re good,” he said.
Yet, Bethlehem House is on a list of “crisis pregnancy centers” maintained by the group Reproductive Equity Now and on a website called Expose Fake Clinics, prompting concern that all pregnancy centers are being painted with the same brush.
While abortion rights supporters, including Warren, say Massachusetts has three times as many crisis pregnancy centers as abortion clinics, that statistic does not include nine hospitals that perform abortions, while including a few centers like Bethlehem House that would not be mistaken for medical centers.
“Why would they target us?” asked the director of one center north of Boston, which operates out of a CCD classroom stuffed with baby supplies. (She was so concerned about vandalism and violence she would only speak on the condition its location and her identity not be disclosed.)
The director views her work as a charity and said she does not mislead anyone; last year, she gave 675 women essentials such as car seats, diapers, baby clothes, and portable cribs, she said.
“We don’t even take gas money,” said the director, who delivers to people’s homes. “I know I’m doing something good. I believe I’m doing what God wants me to do and I can see the joy in their faces.”
Still, abortion rights advocates say that centers like hers mislead women about the risks and realities of abortion — and will cause further confusion online where desperate patients from states that ban abortion try to book appointments in Massachusetts.
“What will be certain,” said Jenifer McKenna, a Northampton resident who produced a report on the centers called Designed to Deceive, “is the crisis pregnancy center industry will be looking to expand.”