They have been vandalized in Worcester and Easthampton, vilified by Senator Elizabeth Warren, and put on notice by Attorney General Maura Healey, who warned consumers that most crisis pregnancy centers are not licensed medical clinics and may mislead patients about abortion.
Now, they’re pushing back.
A newly formed coalition of faith-based crisis pregnancy centers, backed by the Massachusetts Family Institute, warned the attorney general Monday that any sanctions taken against them would be unconstitutional. In a letter from the Family Institute and First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending religious liberty, the centers urged Healey to lift the consumer advisory against them. And they demanded that she begin to defend them against the public attacks they’re facing in a political landscape upended by the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
More than 60 such centers across the country have been vandalized — several even firebombed — since the Supreme Court ruling overturning constitutional protections for abortion was leaked in May, according to Catholic Vote, an advocacy organization. A local group called Mass Feminist Struggle Committee recently picketed a crisis pregnancy center in Chinatown, calling for an eviction by the landlord and criticizing staffers personally online.
“Rather than protect these faith-based organizations providing professional reproductive health services, as is the duty of your office, your letter has placed them in further jeopardy,” said the letter, obtained by the Globe.
“We’ve been here since 1998 and now, for the first time, we’ve had to buy security cameras,” said Teresa Larkin, executive director of Your Options Medical, a crisis pregnancy center in Revere. “It’s disheartening and a little concerning that we don’t know what to expect, because something like, ‘if abortions aren’t safe, neither are you’ is a direct threat.”
Such messages have been spray-painted at crisis pregnancy centers across the country and attributed to a shadowy group called “Jane’s Revenge.” A member of the group that recently picketed in Chinatown would not discuss vandalism but did not disavow it.
“Our objective is less to do things like that and more to get more people actively involved in organizing,” said the member, whom the Globe contacted on social media and interviewed by phone, and who would identify herself only as Isabel.
Crisis pregnancy centers are anti-abortion organizations that offer free pregnancy tests and counseling, as well as donations including car seats, to those facing unwanted pregnancies. What they never offer is abortion — despite using the word generously on their websites — prompting politicians and activists to warn that their business model relies on luring in people seeking abortions and talking them out of it. In a group interview with the Globe last month, the directors of several of the centers forming the coalition disputed that image and defended their work.
“We don’t change people’s minds. We’re not even here to change people’s minds,” said Kelly Wilcox, executive director of Clearway Clinics, which has centers in Worcester and Springfield. “We’re here to give them really good quality informed consent.”
Though they don’t provide abortion, Wilcox said centers like hers address it as one of the options being considered and present relevant information to the decision-making, including an ultrasound.
“She has to know how far along [the pregnancy is] to make a good decision,” Wilcox said. “And then if they do choose abortion, we provide post-abortion care.”
She and other directors took offense at Healey’s advisory, which said that crisis pregnancy centers “often provide inaccurate and misleading information about abortion,” and “often mislead people about how far they are into their pregnancy.” Healey also advised that “Crisis Pregnancy Centers staffed by unlicensed personnel are not required to keep your medical records private.”
It would be “unconscionable for us to lie about medical information,” said Wilcox. “We are licensed doctors, licensed nurses who are practicing under all standards of medical ethics.”
Likewise, during an interview at Your Options Medical in Revere, Larkin touted her center’s clinic license and medical staff.
But their centers are a rarity, a Globe review found. Most crisis pregnancy centers in the state are not licensed, as Healey noted in her consumer advisory. Massachusetts has more than 30 crisis pregnancy centers, according to an online directory; only five of them appear on the state Department of Public Health’s list of licensed medical clinics. Two additional centers run by Your Options Medical are not licensed.
A spokeswoman for the coalition said that Wilcox and Larkin could not speak for all crisis pregnancy centers but were speaking up “individually but united against the accusations that are being leveled against all of us.”
Still in the planning stages, the alliance is modeling itself after the Connecticut Pregnancy Care Coalition, which mobilized last year when the state enacted a law banning deceptive advertising by crisis pregnancy centers. One of the Connecticut centers is now suing the state through the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization that successfully argued against a similar California law before the Supreme Court in 2018. California had required crisis pregnancy centers to post disclaimers that they were not licensed and to provide information on how to find abortion services and contraception.
Connecticut’s law did not mandate any disputed speech but was written so that it only targeted advertising by particular organizations, said Mark Lippelmann, the group’s senior counsel, who suggested that it’s discriminatory.
“If you’re a pregnancy services center and you provide abortion, there’s nothing to restrict your deceptive advertising in the law,” he said. “They only care about and target those pregnancy centers who are prolife.”
Massachusetts crisis pregnancy centers now appear to be advancing a similar argument as they dispute Healey’s advisory.
“Your threatened enforcement actions discriminate against facilities that hold a viewpoint against abortion,” they wrote in their letter, noting the recent Supreme Court ruling that found it unconstitutional for Boston to refuse to fly a Christian flag at City Hall.
And even as Connecticut’s law is being challenged, it has been replicated by Massachusetts communities including Somerville trying to crack down on deceptive advertising. Cambridge and Worcester are trying to ban the centers outright.
Critics suggest that crisis pregnancy centers’ approach to clients is inherently and intentionally duplicitous, particularly online. A Texas crisis pregnancy center director recently told The Washington Post about optimizing her Google advertising strategy to reach more “abortion-minded women.”
Wilcox and her peers suggested that any such confusion is unintentional.
“Google is the wild West,” Wilcox said. “We come up because we’re talking about post-abortion trauma, we’re talking about a medical exam prior to an abortion.”
“We’re not advertising abortion,” she added. “We’re absolutely, categorically not.”
But Clearway Clinic appears in a Google search for “abortion” and “Worcester,” with text that reads: “Considering abortion in the Worcester-Springfield area? Call Clearway Clinic for free help.” The center’s webpage lists “abortion” among its options tabs, along with “abortion pill reversal,” a procedure the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not support and calls “unproven.” Anti-abortion groups promote it as a way of stopping a two-step medication abortion before it is complete.
A disclaimer appears low on Clearway Clinic’s main website: “We are not an adoption agency, an abortion doctor or an obstetrical practice.”
Faced with a backlash since the Supreme Court ruling, Google recently announced it would begin to differentiate clearly on searches and maps whether clinics actually perform abortion. But that does not yet appear for Clearway or the other crisis pregnancy center in Worcester, Problem Pregnancy, whose website says: “Problem Pregnancy provides free pregnancy tests, limited ultrasound, and abortion consultations.”
Problem Pregnancy did not respond to requests for comment. The coalition members said they could not speak for Problem Pregnancy. But they argued that politicians had unfairly painted all crisis pregnancy centers with the same brush.
Some centers would never be mistaken for a medical clinic — some even operate from church property — and their main role is donating free maternity and baby gear to those who come for pregnancy tests.
“We give out diapers! We give out clothes!” said Larkin. “We’re just trying to help women find support and help and resources. And we’re going to get criticized for that?”