Crisis Pregnancy Centers … on Wheels!

Andrea Lynch

Some people think pregnant women who choose abortions must be ignorant, hysterical or under coercion. Thus to prevent abortions they scare, confuse, or shame them—with your tax dollars.

There's a disturbing strategic trend currently gaining momentum in the anti-abortion movement, and though the ideas it's based on aren't particularly new, new medical technology and a battery of ideologically driven pseudo-scientific "findings" have recently given it a forceful push. The premise goes something like this: pregnant women who choose to have abortions cannot possibly be in their right minds, so they must be either ignorant, heartless, weak, hysterical, or acting under duress. Therefore, the best way to stop a woman from having an abortion—even if she claims to have already made her decision—is to sit her down and give her a good fright, a moral lecture, or an invasive reminder via state-of-the-art technology, that she is, in fact, pregnant.

What does this look like in practice? All over the country, federally funded "crisis pregnancy centers" are popping up next to places where women can obtain safe abortions, in an effort to trick women into reconsidering their decisions (for an idea of what goes on inside crisis pregnancy centers, read this testimonial from a woman who ventured into A Woman's Concern, one of the centers run by the now-infamous Dr. Eric Keroack). Upping the ante, the anti-abortion NGO Expectant Mother Care has just announced the launch of a "mobile crisis pregnancy center" that will target clinics in New York City and northern New Jersey. The strategy? Equip a 32-foot-long mobile office with a 4D ultrasound machine, park it outside places where women can get safe abortions, and accost women as they attempt to enter the clinics.

The strategy has a legislative component as well. A law recently under consideration in South Carolina would have required pregnant women seeking abortions to view ultrasound images of their fetuses (the provision was eventually dropped). And the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard arguments on a 2005 law passed by the South Dakota legislature that would require doctors to certify in writing that they have told pregnant women seeking abortions that "the abortion will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being," that "the pregnant woman has an existing relationship with that unborn human being and that … by having an abortion, her existing relationship and her existing constitutional rights with regards to that relationship will be terminated;" and that the health risks associated with abortion include "depression and related psychological distress" and "increased risk of suicide ideation and suicide" (this last based on scientifically unproven legislative "findings"). A lesser-known provision of the law requires doctors to provide the pregnant woman with "the name, address, and telephone number of a pregnancy help center in reasonable proximity of the abortion facility where the abortion will be performed" at least 24 hours before the procedure. The American Prospect has an excellent analysis of the whole case here.

All of these anti-abortion measures are predicated on the notion that pregnant women do not understand what it means to be pregnant, and have not sufficiently thought through their decision to have an abortion. Their proponents claim to have women's best interests at heart, and claim to be creating a space for women to reflect on their decisions. But this is not about reflection. It's about coercion.

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Which is ironic, because many of the arguments used in support of these measures highlight the fact that pregnant women are sometimes coerced into having abortions by their families and their partners. That's certainly true—which is why pro-choice advocates for pregnant women tend to oppose parental and spousal notification laws, another well-known tool in the anti-abortion strategy kit. It's also why pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood provide pre-abortion pregnancy options counseling—to ensure that before she has an abortion, a woman is aware of all her options, and is making her own decision, not just following the orders of her parents or her partner. And it's also why pro-choice after-abortion talklines like Exhale exist as non-judgmental, non-ideological resources designed to help women process the different feelings they may have after an abortion. All of these organizations aim to create a culture that values pregnant women's capacity to make and to live with their own decisions, bolstered by non-coercive moral support and factual, scientific information about each of their options.

Crisis pregnancy centers and state-sanctioned, medically questionable, ideologically-driven scripts for doctors are not the "anti-abortion equivalent" of pregnancy options counseling and studies that demonstrate time and time again that "post-abortion syndrome" is a political fabrication and that abortion does not cause breast cancer. Findings aren't scientific just because the South Dakota legislature (or the U.S. congress, for that matter) says they are—and lawmakers should be called out for appropriating scientific language to legitimize unquestionably ideological objectives. Similarly, crisis pregnancy centers and their mobile equivalents may have appropriated the language of informed consent, but luring women into your service center through deception and subterfuge and marshalling all manner of technological and psychological tactics to manipulate them into making a decision you believe is morally correct, is not pregnancy options counseling. As Lynn Paltrow pointed out to the South Dakota legislature's taskforce to study abortion in 2005, it's time we stopped treating pregnant women like babies at best and criminals at worst, and started putting our money and our energy into services that truly support them.

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