Laurie Bertram Roberts just needed a free pregnancy test. But at the facility where she sought services, that test came with an unexpected price: sitting through a graphic anti-abortion video and fielding questions about why Roberts wasn’t married to her partner.
Roberts did not plan to have an abortion—she just had no money, couldn’t get in to see her doctor, and needed that test. Facilities like this one that offered such tests for free were so ubiquitous in Indiana, where she lived, that she considered them just another convenient resource.
That all changed during the visit 15 years ago.
When Roberts disclosed that her relationship was abusive, the “counselor” doubled down.
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“She just kept insisting that I should get married for the good of my children because I wasn’t right with God,” Roberts told Rewire in an interview. “I was like, ‘I just told you that he’s abusive and I need to figure out a way to leave him.’”
Roberts’ experience that day has her concerned about the latest effort by a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) in her home state of Mississippi to reach people facing unplanned pregnancies: advertising on a public high school’s graduation tickets.
Tickets for the May graduation at Pearl River Central High School in the southern Mississippi community of Carriere featured an ad on the back for Sav-a-Life Pregnancy Support Services of the Pearl River Area, part of the crisis pregnancy giant CareNet. The ad, seen by Rewire, shows a baby’s hand clutching a finger, with the offer of “FREE Pregnancy tests and help” and the center’s phone number.
While Pearl River County Superintendent Alan Lumpkin defended the ads to Rewire, calling them “appropriate,” reproductive health activists like Roberts fear they further legitimize fake clinics that attempt to dissuade people from abortion. National and local advocates told Rewire they had never heard of a specific case like this one.
“Have I seen anything like this before? No. Do I think it probably goes on? Yes,” Roberts, co-founder and executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, said. “Have I seen CPCs advertise a lot within the religious community at teen events? Of course. But at public school events? No.”
Beyond promoting themselves on billboards and public transit, CPCs around the country have run ads in school newspapers and set up shop in neighborhoods near colleges and universities. The ticket ads track with these efforts, according to Kelli Garcia, senior counsel with the National Women’s Law Center.
“It’s very consistent with the way in which they try to infiltrate through all areas and get their name out and recognized with their target group, which are really largely young people,” Garcia told Rewire in an interview. “Their expectation is that it’s young people who would be most in need of their ‘services,’ but also young people who are going to most easily fall for their advertising.”
By design, the ads often give the false impression that CPCs perform or refer for abortions, so would-be patients may mistakenly think they are entering an abortion clinic. Once inside, they face shaming and a barrage of misinformation, like the disproven claim that abortion is linked to breast cancer.
This deceptive marketing is evident on Sav-a-Life’s website.
“Our confidential services and caring peer-counselors can help you make an informed decision about all of your options,” the site claims. “Whether you are considering abortion, adoption, or parenting, our staff has the information you need to make the best decision for yourself and your baby.”
But that’s not what Sav-a-Life does.
In fact, its mission is to “make abortion unnecessary and undesirable in our region,” executive director Bonita Wynn told Rewire in an interview.
Wynn said Sav-a-Life bought the ticket ads through Mascot Media, which prints materials like sports schedule posters and cards for schools nationwide. A Mascot Media representative told Rewire the company called Sav-a-Life to offer them sponsorship of the graduation tickets because the center has sponsored products at the school since about 2012.
“We advertise on their cards all the time, you know, their schedule cards,” Wynn said.
Lumpkin, the superintendent, said the school district does not make money off the ads, which he said Mascot Media uses to cover the costs of making the products.
Asked about the criteria for these ads, Lumpkin said he would object to “inappropriate” ads promoting alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes. Rewire asked if he would consider a Planned Parenthood ad “inappropriate.”
“Sav-a-Life, from my understanding in reading their website and their brochures, is they provide counseling, information on all areas of pregnancy for the community,” Lumpkin said. “If we had a counseling center, a Planned Parenthood counseling center in our area, and they wanted to sponsor with Mascot Media, that would be appropriate.”
Pressed on whether the district would run an ad for a local organization that provided abortions, Lumpkin said it would—if there were one.
“We wouldn’t have a problem with that,” Lumpkin said. “If we had one in the area … we don’t have one in the area, from my understanding.”
Lumpkin also said the school district should represent the views of local residents, who, he said, largely oppose abortion.
“We’re supposed to represent our county views and the values that they in this community, the values that they feel like represent them,” Lumpkin said. “No matter what side of it I stand on or what side of it you stand on, those are not the views and values of the state of Mississippi and the county of Pearl River County.”
Shannon Brewer, director of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, questioned Lumpkin’s conclusions. Her clinic is about two and a half hours from the high school.
“I’ve been here 17 years and there are a lot of people who are in need of our services and there are a lot of people that are pro-choice,” Brewer told Rewire in an interview.
Brewer said her clinic has fielded sponsorship offers from callers who don’t initially realize what her organization does.
“When they find out it’s an abortion clinic, we have been turned down,” Brewer said.
Mississippi has more than three dozen CPCs, including one that recently opened across the street from Brewer’s clinic. The state requires providers to give patients seeking abortion a referral list that includes these fake clinics, which also receive funding from a state-operated anti-choice license plate program that claims to have raised over $3 million.
The state has also passed laws aimed at regulating abortion out of existence, making it cost-prohibitive for Planned Parenthood to offer abortions there, although it does offer other reproductive health services, said Felicia Brown-Williams, Mississippi state director of Planned Parenthood Southeast. The sole Planned Parenthood clinic in the state is in Hattiesburg, about an hour from Pearl River Central High School.
“We’ve got a challenging reproductive health landscape,” Brown-Williams told Rewire in an interview. “We’ve got very high STI rates. Mississippi has the highest number of unintended pregnancies in the country, and that is for age groups across the board, and we know people just don’t have access to care generally.”
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) has not only rejected the federal Medicaid expansion, his administration has refused to use funds that would give poor families child care subsidies and rejected nearly everyone who applies for welfare, effectively withholding the very resources needed by many who choose to carry unintended pregnancies to term. Republicans in Congress have followed a similar model, trying to defund Planned Parenthood while slashing Medicaid, although their most recent attempt appears to have collapsed after mass protests.
In this environment, CPCs may purport to fill the gap, offering resources like clothing and diapers and even limited prenatal care. But, as in Roberts’ case, these services often come with a cost. Many CPCs, including Sav-a-Life, rely on “earn while you learn” programs, where people earn credits in exchange for attending lessons. Roberts said that she was told she could watch videos about topics like abstinence, parenting, breastfeeding, and natural family planning—or even attend church—to get points.
“It’s right out of the colonizers’ handbook, right, like, I’m here to save you, but only if you do what I want you to do, and I’m going to withhold all these resources until you do what I want you to do,” Roberts said. “And that is ugly to me.”
That’s why Roberts’ organization recently purchased a house in Jackson where she one day hopes to do what CPCs falsely claim to do. Applying a model used by All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center in Indiana, she hopes to offer counseling and support for all pregnancy options, without strings or judgments attached.
In the meantime, Roberts, who is also a doula, wishes she could send people to CPCs for supplies.
“I wish I could feel like it was a safe space for me to refer my low-income women of color clients to. But I don’t,” Roberts said. “I don’t feel safe sending a rape survivor to them who remains pregnant. And that bothers me, ‘cause they hold a lot of resources that people who we serve need and my organization shouldn’t have to stockpile another set of resources when these people already have resources stockpiled in [dozens of] locations all over the state.”
Christine Grimaldi contributed to reporting for this story.