When a young woman named Jessica wrote to me on Scarleteen to ask whether women who are pregnant should visit a crisis pregnancy center for resources and support, I warned her that CPCs are non-medical establishments that provide false information to women in order to scare them away from abortion as an option. I explained how easy it can be to be fooled by CPCs, even when you’re savvy, aware of practices CPCs typically employ — even, I soon learned, when you’re writing an article in protest of them. And then I offered Jessica a link to the American Pregnancy Helpline as an option for women looking for support sustaining a pregnancy and as an alternative to a CPC.
I proved my own point too well.
At first blush, Helpline’s website presents itself as supportive of all pregnancy options. I found several sites I know to be reputable and fully supportive of choice linking to the Helpline. But I should know to be wary of any sites offering aid to pregnant women. If I had, I would have found that the American Pregnancy Helpline is affiliated with a larger organization, the American Pregnancy Association (APA), whose site is linked to even by such organizations as the National Abortion Federation, the Our Bodies, Ourselves blog, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, WebMD, RAINN, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and, perhaps most disturbingly, MedlinePlus, a well-vetted consumer health site that is a project of the National Library of Medicine — all of whom are likely unaware of the extent of the APA’s connection to anti-choice causes. Once I found the link between the Helpline and the American Pregnancy Association, I found a whole lot more.
By the end of a day of deep digging, I discovered that both the American Pregnancy Helpline and the American Pregnancy Association and their founders have no record of being supportive of all reproductive options. In fact, the organizations both trace their origins to a crisis pregnancy center. I found misleading and medically incorrect information on both organization’s sites, including references to “partial-birth abortion” and the suggestion that future fertility or breast cancer has anything at all to do with having had an abortion. I learned that the Helpline is widely linked in CPC and anti-choice directories. And I soon noticed the strange absence of any information on contraception at the site for teens, while links to sites pushing ab-only proliferate. (I emailed the site immediately asking a few basic questions about their stance and background early but have yet to get any response.)
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“As a longtime options and abortion counselor, I am blown away to learn that this place has sneaked under the radar to this extent,” says Parker Dockray, executive director of the California Coalition for Reproductive Freedom and the Rewire reader who first questioned my link to the American Pregnancy Association. “I think it is a wake up call for the pro-choice community that we cannot rely on circular referrals without doing our own due diligence every single time we find a new hotline purporting to do unbiased abortion or pregnancy options counseling.” After being informed of APA’s biases, the National Abortion Federation’s Vicki Saporta wrote, “This site is a prime example of how well some crisis pregnancy centers masquerade as legitimate reproductive health care organizations. Imagine how difficult it must be for a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy to determine which sites and centers provide full options counseling and comprehensive reproductive health care services…We no longer link to this organization.”
A waltz through the Helpline’s web archives reveals that the organization was founded as a textbook CPC. At that time it was called America’s Crisis Pregnancy Helpline and didn’t claim any sort of medical accuracy or affiliation. To its credit, the organization’s information page did once admit that it doesn’t provide referrals to abortion services; the organization no longer makes that statement anywhere on the current site.
Misleading Readers Since 1999
This 1999 page demonstrates a clear bias. Note that the questions about finances, about “long-term physical and emotional effects,” knowledge of procedures, pressuring, changing one’s mind or “looking down on” women are asked about abortion but not about parenting or adoption. Parenting is a lifelong endeavor, so why does the options page pose no questions at all about readiness, desire or ability to parent? Same goes with adoption: no questions are posed; only a list of possible benefits is presented.
Abortion gets a list of “possible emotional side effects,” but none is listed for parenting or adoption, despite the fact that abortion “side effects” also commonly occur to women who parent or give children up for adoption. If you’re considering an abortion, the Helpline prods you to ask yourself, “What would an adoption plan look like?” but there is no such question about parenting, nor do the lists for adoption or parenting ask what an abortion plan would look like.
Apparently, only “when it comes to abortion” — not parenting or adoption — “there are many issues to consider when making a decision.”
The Helpline’s current online pregnancy test — which reports that you may be pregnant no matter how you respond — offers you the opportunity to see a “baby” in the womb “at every stage,” though that link leads to a page with no gestation dates listed for the few select photos it provides. It suggests access to free pregnancy testing through the Helpline but does not instruct readers to purchase a home test or to see a healthcare provider for a test.
Birth of the Helpline
According to the 1999 site archive, the Helpline was established by Mike and Anne Sheaffer in 1995. The couple advertised their desire to adopt a baby on two billboards in Dallas and set up a hotline to respond to the calls from pregnant women the billboards provoked. Says the site archive:
In the 1,100 calls the Sheaffers subsequently received, many were from women facing unplanned pregnancies who did not know where else to turn. Recognizing this unfulfilled need in society, the Sheaffers envisioned a confidential crisis line where women could receive the help they desperately needed. [America’s Crisis Pregnancy Hotline] functions in this capacity today as its trained staff provides counseling, pregnancy-related information, and referrals for community resources. ACPH is an independent, non-profit entity and is funded primarily by corporate and private donations.
The Schaeffers started the CPC called America’s Crisis Pregnancy Helpline in 1995; that CPC was later renamed America’s Pregnancy Helpline. In 2003, that organization spawned the American Pregnancy Association. Both the Helpline and the APA continued to exist, ostensibly as separate entities; in reality, at one call center, at the same address.
But the current Helpline site provides no organizational background, nor does it make any reference to the Sheaffers or to a direct affiliation with the APA — even though the current site for the APA tells the story of the Sheaffers and notes that,
In 2003, the Helpline became the American Pregnancy Association, a foundation of health services for the public, including education, research, advocacy, public policy and community awareness. Utilizing a Medical Advisory Committee, and collaborating with other reproductive and pregnancy health organizations, APA is a recognized leader of reproductive and pregnancy health information.
The organization’s named president, Dr. Phillip B. Imler, seems to exist only on a site profiling Christian Adoption International. A Dr. Brad Imler, whose doctorate is in psychology, is listed as their contact for corporate partnerships, and appears elsewhere online — in press quotes and in his profile at the forums for the site. I couldn’t find any background, practice or resume for Brad previous to the APA, either — as the President of the APA, not Philip. Dr. Brad Imler is interviewed here in a publication for the American Life League.
On an exceptionally difficult-to-find page, the founders of the APA are listed as J. Michael Sheaffer and Dr. Brad Imler. J. Michael Sheaffer can be found in a tax-exempt organization listing as the director of Pastors for Life International, an organization listed as a Right to Life organization in Texas with a return last filed in 2002. The website for PFLI appears to have gone dark in 2005. Until 2002, the web archive of the domain shows J. Michael Sheaffer of the organization. In an archive of the site during the time Shaeffer was listed as a Founding Director, a page lists ways pastors or congregations could get involved with the mission of PFLI. Those include:
Start a pregnancy center or maternity home. Create a “Mentoring Mothers” network for pregnant teenagers. Start a post-abortion reconciliation ministry. Refer women who are unexpectedly pregnant to pro-life safetynets. Create web links to pregnancy, adoption, and post-abortion resources.
Those goals are paired with contact links, and the Helpline is listed as a contact to “Help individuals gain access to pro-life safety nets,” and “Identify and support a local pro-life agency (prayer, material assistance, financial, or volunteer).”
In June 2006, Charisma magazine reported that the American Pregnancy Association had collaborated with a pregnancy test manufacturer to add inserts providing its Helpline number in 3.5 million test kits. The article quotes “APA President Brad Imler,” who tells the magazine, “What we find is that most women, when they receive information, desire to carry a child to term.” Charisma writes,
Statistics have shown that 70 percent of women did not have enough information before deciding to abort a pregnancy, Imler said. The APA compiles statistics based on its own data, as well as research coming from other reliable sources, Imler said.
Calling the Helpline
So, knowing all of this, what else could I do but take America’s Pregnancy Helpline for a test drive? Scarleteen volunteer S. called them up.
The Helpline staff answered as the American Pregnancy Association. S. reported that she was seven weeks pregnant and needed an abortion because her parents would put her in danger if they found out she had gotten pregnant. The staffer on the line refused to give her a referral for any abortion services or any abortion counseling or information (nor did the staffer suggest that she get somewhere safe), but asked where she was and offered the phone number of “somewhere nearby she could go to get information on abortion.” That number was for the Monroeville Crisis Pregnancy Center, which also calls itself the Monroeville Pregnancy Care Center and Crossroads Pregnancy Services. The organization, a member of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, has at least two different websites despite being one business and clearly fails to provide any accurate information about abortion. We can safely presume my volunteer was not given this number by accident — when pressing for more information, the staffer on the phone refused to give any other resources, even though a Planned Parenthood is located nearby as well.
That Helpline number is the only hotline number offered for questions about abortion procedures on the APA’s abortion information pages.
What We Know Now
I cannot say whether the APA exists solely or primarily as a way to feed CPCs. Plenty of the information at the APA certainly is medically accurate, and the organization may very well be as passionate about maternal health as they are about the pro-life cause. But given all of this information, given the personal bias involved, and the extent to which these links and affiliations are disguised, I think it begs the question.
In many ways this is a sadly perfect object lesson about CPCs. I’m streetwise, and I have a keen eye for bias, for things that don’t quite fit, and for deception when it comes to reproductive options and aid. What I don’t have is unlimited time, so, like any busy, stressed woman fearing pregnancy would also do, I relied on not hearing anything bad about these organizations from the pro-choice groups I trust. “Exposing [CPCs] for what they are takes constant attention,” cautions Judy Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies, Ourselves.
I hope my readers understand that this was a sincere error on my part, for which I take full responsibility. I am certainly glad to have discovered all of this about these organizations and to have the opportunity to reveal this information about them. I didn’t learn this lesson, after all, as a woman in the midst of an unwanted pregnancy seeking help and the accurate, supportive information I was assured I’d be given for all of my choices.