Days after Top-Gyn Ladies Center in Coral Gables, Florida, closed its doors in October, a crisis pregnancy center run by Heartbeat of Miami moved in.
The Ladies Center had provided abortions, but Heartbeat of Miami’s mission is to dissuade women from seeking termination services and to save “unborn children,” according to its website.
The new tenants quickly hung a sign outside: Pregnancy Help Medical Clinics. The phones were soon ringing, they reported, with calls from women wanting to end their pregnancies.
Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) often masquerade as women’s health clinics and, according to recent reports, routinely dispense biased and inaccurate information. Abortion rights advocates suggest that moving into an office once occupied by a reproductive health provider bolsters this ruse. The gambit could potentially leave a pregnant person without the medically accurate information they need to have a healthy baby.
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Sally Greenwald, an obstetrics and gynecology resident in San Francisco, told Rewire in an interview that her patients have included a pregnant diabetic woman whose blood sugar levels had spiked under a CPC’s care. Such mismanagement, she said, puts the developing fetus at risk for organ and spinal cord abnormalities, neonatal seizures after delivery, and other medical issues.
“That can have lifelong implications,” Greenwald said.
Greenwald called the first trimester “one of the most important times in the development of the fetus and the establishment of a healthy pregnancy,” making adequate health care essential.
Heartbeat of Miami reported it was the second time in the past three years that the religious group had moved into a shuttered abortion clinic. Reports by abortion opponents and in the media describe reproductive health clinics that have reopened as crisis pregnancy centers in Montana, Texas, Kansas, Tennessee, and Florida.
Pinning down the prevalence of the phenomena is difficult.
Rewire reached out to organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, and Care Net, a network of more than 1,000 CPCs, and learned the groups don’t track the number of CPCs that have replaced reproductive health providers.
A Planned Parenthood spokeswoman said in an email that claims that CPCs are moving into closed clinics aren’t new, and aren’t backed by data.
However widespread, this development coincides with a growing vacuum in women’s reproductive health services. A raft of state laws have drastically increased the red tape imposed on abortion doctors and facilities, making it nearly impossible for them to stay afloat. At the same time, nine state legislatures—eight with GOP majorities in both chambers—have introduced or enacted legislation to extend state funding to anti-choice outfits, like CPCs, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Opening a CPC in a former reproductive health clinic capitalizes on the desire by anti-choice operators to reach women seeking abortions, reproductive rights advocates suggest. And it solves a shortcoming identified in a 2014 survey by the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a research group opposed to abortion rights.
The survey reportedly found that 12 percent of patients at the nation’s 2,500 CPCs were “abortion-minded” women, the cohort that CPCs most want to attract and dissuade.
The moves are a twist on an age-old tactic of CPCs to locate themselves next to abortion providers.
CPCs in former abortion clinics can purposely confuse women, said Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California. “They target unsuspecting women who are going for health services, birth control, or abortion and they prey on them,” Everitt explained.
The typical consequence, said Pratima Gupta, a reproductive health advocacy fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, is care based on ideology, not on medical science.
“Most people working at CPCs don’t have any medical background,” Gupta told Rewire.
Therese McCluskey, perinatal services coordinator for the Alameda County Public Health Department in California, recently told members of the state legislature that many pregnant patients who come to her clinics from CPCs arrive without prenatal records, lab reports, or the verification form that entitles them to pregnancy-related health care, as Mother Jones reported.
An undercover investigation in California showed that CPCs strategically misinform and deceive pregnant people with the aim of preventing them from accessing abortion care.
Gupta said she knows of CPCs that have told patients inaccurate due dates and scared women by saying the fetus feels pain. She said such tactics are detrimental to patients who want to end their pregnancies, as well as those who don’t.
“Both ways, I think it can really result in a delay of care,” Gupta said. “And that’s what’s really unfortunate.”