Attleboro Women’s Health Center in Massachusetts, like many abortion clinics, has a website offering information about the steps involved in surgical and medication abortion care, price estimates, reassuring imagery of personnel in white coats, and appointments “to discuss the abortion methods that may be available to you.”
There’s only one hitch.
This center doesn’t offer abortion—or even accurate information about the procedure. Attleboro Women’s Health Center is a crisis pregnancy center, or fake clinic, whose mission is to deter patients from abortion care. The center’s website is registered to Darlene Howard, executive director of Abundant Hope Pregnancy Resource Center, which is a self-described “Christian pro-life ministry.” The two organizations share an address.
Melissa Simas, who lives in the area, told Rewire that she noticed within the past week that the center had installed a green awning with the words “Attleboro Women’s Health Center.”
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The fake clinic is about half a mile from Four Women Health Services, an abortion clinic. (Disclosure: This Rewire reporter worked at Four Women several years ago.) While it’s not unusual for anti-choice centers to try to lure abortion clinic patients by offering the false impression that they provide abortion care, the extent of this center’s efforts shocked pro-choice advocates.
“It’s one of the most egregious cases of deceptive rebranding of a CPC I can personally remember seeing in over a decade of advocating for reproductive freedom,” Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, told Rewire, after reviewing the website.
The site, which has been active for months, was recently changed to add tabs on the abortion pill and surgical abortion. It features a detailed breakdown of the procedures for varying gestational ages; unscientific terms like “dismember” and “unborn baby” may alert discerning readers that this is biased information. When a Rewire reporter registered for an appointment and inquired by email about the center’s services, a representative promised the “initial appointment will include a free pregnancy test and an abortion consultation to discuss which methods may be available to you based on your individual circumstances.”
It’s only deep in the “About” section that the center acknowledges it does “not offer, recommend or refer for abortions or abortifacients.”
“Everything that we provide is on our website, so there will be no comment,” Howard said, before hanging up on Rewire.
The website features unsubstantiated claims about the purported psychological risks of abortion—contradicting research that shows abortion does not damage mental health—and a phone number for so-called abortion reversal, a misleading and unproven protocol promoted by anti-choice activists.
Abundant Hope is listed as an affiliate of Heartbeat International, which describes itself as the largest network of crisis pregnancy centers in the world, and instructs these centers to conceal their true intentions by scrapping religious language, for example. (Someone who answered the phone at Attleboro Women’s Health Center acknowledged it is under the same “umbrella” as Abundant Hope.) Attleboro Women’s Health Center’s website claims it “was founded to empower women to make informed decisions about an unplanned pregnancy that support their privacy, dignity and self-respect.”
That’s a near-verbatim repetition of the stated mission of the abortion clinic nearby: “to empower women to make informed decisions that support their privacy, dignity and self-respect.”
While it has relatively few restrictions on abortion care, Massachusetts allows the sale of “Choose Life” license plates and donates a portion of the proceeds to anti-choice organizations—one of 15 states to do so. Crisis pregnancy centers outnumber abortion clinics in the state by more than three to one, with 30 operating across the state, according to a 2011 NARAL report.
“I think it’s wrong for us to fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Well, we’re in a state historically friendly to women’s rights,’ particularly in this climate where we have anti-choice forces emboldened by our leadership on the federal level,” said Holder of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts.
Indeed, these anti-choice fake clinics have found key allies in the Trump administration.
The family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has funneled money to crisis pregnancy centers, including one in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that, like the one in Attleboro, lists detailed information about abortion procedures and touts abortion reversal on its website. Vice President Mike Pence diverted millions intended for needy families to fake clinics while he was Indiana governor. And a Rewire review found the Trump administration has already awarded such clinics millions in taxpayer dollars.
“The deceptive and false things they’re saying [on the Attleboro website] about the harms of abortion are part of this general narrative that has taken hold within many areas in the federal government,” Kelli Garcia, director of reproductive justice initiatives at the National Women’s Law Center, told Rewire.
While a number of states have used public dollars to support fake clinics, Hawaii was the most recent state to attempt to crack down on their deceptive tactics, following California. Both states have faced legal challenges from anti-choice groups over these regulations, as have cities like Baltimore, which defended its truth-in-advertising ordinance in court this week.
Rewire contacted the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to ask if the Attleboro clinic’s behavior might constitute fraud or other illegal behavior.
“Every woman has a right to make decisions about her own reproductive health care without being subjected to intimidation or harassment,” Emalie Gainey, a spokesperson for Healey, said in an emailed statement. Following a Rewire report last year, Healey announced a settlement agreement to prohibit a Boston-based firm hired by anti-choice groups from targeting “abortion-minded women” in Massachusetts with digital propaganda while they visit abortion clinics.
Meanwhile, grassroots groups are taking action. The Expose Fake Clinics campaign, which involves dozens of organizations, including Lady Parts Justice League, encourages people to submit and “like” accurate reviews on platforms like Yelp and Google to expose the ideological goals of fake clinics.
“Our whole thing is, you should be up front,” Lizz Winstead, founder of Lady Parts Justice League, told Rewire. “If you are a Christian-based organization that would like to encourage people who are pregnant to have a baby, then you should say that’s who you are. But the fact that you don’t leads me to believe that you can’t get people in your doors by saying that about yourself.”