Organizations like SPARK, ReproAction and Abortion Access Front are exposing the deceptive tactics of fake abortion clinics and organizing to stop them from harming women.
“My high school was down the street from a crisis pregnancy center. My house that I grew up in was next door to a crisis center. I drove by it every day and saw ‘pregnancy resource center.’ I just assumed that it was a medical provider. I wasn’t the only person fooled,” says Agbo Ikor, director of programs at SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW in Atlanta, Georgia.
“My best friend when she was pregnant, she was taken to a crisis pregnancy center. And while she was there, they shamed her. They made her feel like if she had an abortion she was just this terrible person. It was very traumatizing for her,” says Ikor. “It is infuriating. It’s just really, really hard to think about.”
Ikor and other activists across the country are fighting back against “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs)—called fake abortion clinics or anti-abortion centers by reproductive justice activists. SPARK, ReproAction and Abortion Access Front are leading campaigns to expose the deceptive and harmful tactics of anti-abortion centers and mobilizing activists to fight them.
What Are Anti-Abortion Centers and How Are They Funded?
While states have passed ever more restrictive abortion laws and closed down reproductive health clinics in increasing numbers over the last several years, anti-abortion centers have proliferated. There are currently about 2,700 anti-abortion centers across the United States, more than three times the number of reproductive health care clinics that provide abortion services.
Staff at anti-abortion centers wear surgical scrubs or white coats, they ask clients to fill out medical history questionnaires, they offer pregnancy tests and ultrasound scans, all in order to appear as if the center is a licensed medical facility—despite the fact that most are unlicensed and have no medically trained personnel on site. Many anti-abortion centers locate next to or across the street from full-service reproductive health centers and use similar-sounding names.
Activists note that these tactics sometimes make it hard to tell the difference between a real clinic and a fake one. “They’ve gotten wise to this larger movement calling them out and they started adapting,” said Anna Bean, Director of Programs of the Abortion Access Front. “So they’re constantly changing their names, adopting more feminist terminology on their websites. They use the language of choice and empowerment and knowledge and all the things that we want reproductive healthcare to be about. They’re manipulating that, like a fake clinic used to be called ‘St. Joseph’s Crisis Pregnancy Center.’ Now, it’s like, ‘Options for Women.’ It’s harder to figure out if it’s a real clinic. They’re getting more hip to what’s going on.”
Once women are in the door, anti-abortion centers try to dissuade them from having abortions by lying to them—saying abortion is dangerous and causes breast cancer, depression and infertility—all untrue says the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Anti-abortion centers tell women abortion—even in early weeks of pregnancy—causes fetal pain, which is incorrect, according to ACOG. They shame and stigmatize women who want abortions and try to delay them from seeking health care until it’s too late.
Fake clinics target the most vulnerable women, says Dr. Andrea Swartzendruber, who is a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Georgia and researches anti-abortion centers.
“CPCs particularly target their advertising and services to some of the same groups who are most impacted by unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. And those include young people, especially young people who may be on their parents insurance and are looking for free services…and may be vulnerable to believing the misinformation that CPCs put out,” says Swartzendruber.
“In many places in Georgia and elsewhere, folks of color and people who live in low-income households are also really vulnerable to the attraction of CPC services, which are provided for free…CPCs try to target themselves to those populations.”
“The purpose of CPCs is to prevent people from making informed choices around their bodies and their pregnancies,” says Ikor. “One of the most maddening things about them is that they purport to offer low cost services, which a lot of Black people need, and then they actually are not accurate. That’s just really, really harmful, and really taking advantage of the fact that these resources aren’t available or accessible to low income folks or folks of color. That’s how they fit into the whole medical industrial complex and medical racism as a whole.”
While CPCs appear to be local, community-based organizations, they are usually part of large extremely-wealthy networks, such as Heartbeat International, Birthright International, Care Network, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, or Human Coalition, says Shireen Shakouri, Deputy Director at ReproAction. “They seem more community oriented than they actually are, but they are widely-tentacled organizations and very technologically savvy,” says Shakouri.
“They have intense, highly-strategized marketing schemes to pull people in from the internet, whether it’s SEO manipulation or geolocation services. They are using every tool in their tool belt to find what they would call ‘abortion minded’ or ‘abortion vulnerable’ people and pull them into their clinics. And from there, the manipulation just accelerates.”
What’s more, anti-abortion centers receive a significant amount of state and federal funding. In a report released last June, Equity Forward revealed that state lawmakers are funding anti-abortion centers and diverting federal dollars earmarked for impoverished mothers and children to these centers.
During the Trump administration, the federal government granted $1.7 million in Title X funding—meant for family planning services—to the coercive Obria Medical Clinics, a Christian, antiabortion organization that opposes hormonal birth control and other contraceptives and offers training in the unreliable rhythm method.
For years, anti-abortion center networks have received federal sex education funds to run centers and teach abstinence-based education in public schools. But these groups are now applying for a wide range of federal grants, including ones earmarked for maternity group homes, youth homelessness, human trafficking, domestic violence prevention, teen pregnancy prevention, adoption and other child welfare issues.
In response, advocates across the country are organizing to prevent these centers from causing any more damage.
ReproAction’s #BadFaithMedicine Campaign
ReproAction has started a campaign to expose fake clinics—#BadFaithMedicine—which tracks down questionable finances and unethical practices, and equips activists to take on the fake clinics in their communities with a database of every fake clinic in the country, a fact book on how fake clinics work, and a direct action toolkit.
They provide information about how to spot fake clinics, how “pregnancy resource centers” aren’t really helping new parents, and how fake clinics use taxpayer dollars to lie to women. They also offer webinars, such as Reali-TEA of Fake Clinics & Abortion Pill Reversal, Racism and Anti-Abortion Fake Clinics, Using Direct Action to Target CPCs in Your Community, and Fake Clinics Worldwide.
“We’ve created a lot of materials, encouraging people to protest fake clinics, to find ways to call them out, go to their fundraisers and go to events that they sponsor,” says Shakouri.
The fake clinic database lists anti-abortion centers by state, address, affiliation and whether they promote “abortion pill reversal”—“an unproven, unethical experiment performed on abortion patients, often without knowledge they are being experimented upon,” says ReproAction.
The direct action toolkit offers a step-by-step guide on how to locate fake clinics, how to plan a protest, best practices for non-violent direct action and how to write a letter to the editor. Before the pandemic, Shakouri held in-person trainings on how to counter fake clinics. She hopes to do so again soon.
“We’ve hosted a bunch of protests outside of fake clinics,” says Shakouri. “We want them to know we are watching them, we know who they are, and to let them know that we’re not going to let up until people actually know what they’re doing there.”
ReproAction is also working with local groups to protest anti-abortion centers conducting sex education in public schools, says Shakouri. “Municipalities don’t have their own budgeting for sex education so they are very happy to work with these organizations that are happy to do stuff for free because they have all this federal money. So you are getting very clearly ideologically-based, usually Christian-based, fake clinic organizations going into public schools and teaching their faith-based programming.”
In their in-depth investigations into the finances of these centers, detailed in the report The Big Money Behind the Big “Pro-Life,” ReproAction tracked the revenues and expenses of the largest anti-abortion organizations in the country. In 2016 alone, the top 15 organizations in the ‘pro-life’ movement had $197,457,166 total contributions and grants, $208,584,844 in revenues, $211,880,115 total expenses, and $3,769,128 in salaries to top-paid employees.
After learning that some of the big anti-abortion groups are providing guidance to anti-abortion centers on how to apply for federal grants, ReproAction organized a petition drive targeting Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, demanding the agency give no federal funding to anti-abortion fake clinics. The petition states, “Funneling money to anti-abortion fake clinics was common in the previous administration. There is no excuse for continuing this practice now.”
Abortion Access Front’s #ExposeFakeClinics Campaign
Another key player in the fight against fake clinics is the Abortion Access Front (formerly Lady Parts Justice League), who describe themselves as “a coven of hilarious badass feminists who use humor and pop culture to expose the haters fighting against reproductive rights.” One of their major campaigns is to raise awareness about fake clinics.
“Direct action is our jam,” says Anna Bean, Director of Programs of the Abortion Access Front.
Abortion Access Front maintains a website—exposefakeclinics.com—with a map of anti-abortion centers across the U.S. and toolkits for direct action. They train activists on how to review fake clinics on Google and Yelp, how to run phone banks to raise awareness about fake clinics, and how to organize protests outside of clinics. They offer digital resources for signs, chants and informational flyers.
Abortion Access Front has organized several petitions to defund fake clinics, including one in 2019 against the Trump administration giving Title X funds to the Obria Group and another to protest CPCs receiving PPP loans.
“Humor and satire are a really potent force for educating people and then making them angry,” says Bean. Abortion Access Front’s founder Lizz Winstead was the co-creator and head writer of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.
“Everyone loves comedy and everyone deserves to have joy and laughter in their day. We want to make sure there’s a real space for laughter and joy and dancing. Not everything’s always funny all the time, but we found that that angle is a good hook, and it brings in more people that aren’t necessarily already in the fight. It gives people a more accessible sense that I can be part of this too.”
State Campaigns Against Fake Clinics
ReproAction and Abortion Access Front are supporting several state-based groups across the country on campaigns to fight anti-abortion centers in their states.
In 2017, activists in Hartford, Connecticut worked to pass a city ordinance to make anti-abortion centers’ deceptive practices more transparent. The ordinance requires fake women’s health centers to post a sign stating whether or not there is a licensed medical provider on the premises and available to provide medical services. It also prohibits fake women’s health centers from disseminating false, misleading, or deceptive information about the services they provide and from deceiving women into thinking that they provide specific services, like abortion, when they don’t. A legal challenge to the ordinance failed, and after the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision striking down a California law regulating fake clinics, the Hartford ordinance was modified but is still in effect.
Then in February of 2018, NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut Foundation issued a research report documenting the deceptive practices of CPCs and pushing for a state law regulating them. And earlier this year, the Connecticut legislature passed a law that recently went into effect that prohibits fake clinics from engaging in false advertising.
Under the bill, the state attorney general may investigate complaints, and can fine centers up to $500 and charge “reasonable attorney’s fees and costs” if a court finds they engaged in deceptive advertising.
“Put simply, if you sell Subarus, don’t claim it’s a Mercedes-Benz,’’ said Connecticut Representative Christine Palm (D-Chester). “If you’re a bakery, don’t pretend that you sell fruit just because it’s another food item. If you’re a dentist, you’re not an epidemiologist, even though you’re in the medical field. And if you provide adoption counseling and you discourage people from getting abortions, don’t imply, suggest or insinuate that you do otherwise.’’
Other states have active campaigns as well. In Georgia, SPARK has joined together with several other organizations in the state—including Amplify Georgia, New Georgia Project, URGE, and Access Reproductive Care-Southeast—to fight fake clinics. The organizations formed a working group that runs a campaign called Fake Clinics Suck, working to educate the public about how fake clinics try to mislead people. They have a map of fake clinics on their website and hold town halls where people can share stories about their experiences with fake clinics.
“We want to educate the public around what they actually are, how they actually operate and why they’re harmful,” says Ikor.
The working group is also organizing to rescind state funds for fake clinics. In 2016, Georgia passed a law allocating $2 million to fake clinics. Ikor and others are working with Representative Renitta Shannon on legislation to defund them, and redirect the funding to other organizations that can provide comprehensive, unbiased medical care and pregnancy resources to low-income people.
“No One Should Be Lied To”
Advocates fighting fake clinics express their exasperation and rage about the harms of fake clinics.
“We’ve talked to a lot of abortion providers who have dealt with people who have gone to fake clinics. It’s just absolutely doubling down on the internal shame they already feel for seeking abortion and stigmatizing reproductive health care generally,” says Shakouri.
“People feel dumb. People feel even more afraid because they are told they could maybe die from their abortion, and that they’re just making the most selfish and awful decision. And they just feel even more confused and alone. One of the worst aspects of these institutions is they claim they love women, and they just want to save women and babies from this awful, awful thing, but instead they are absolutely exponentially multiplying the harm.”
Bean agrees. “There are so many things that are just so enraging about these fake clinics, but it’s still kind of flying under the radar. There’s so much they’ve been able to get away with saying it’s free speech. But you have a lot of power to educate folks about who’s operating or community and what deceptive practices they are using. I hope that people feel empowered to call their elected officials. You can also have a lot of fun standing outside with some fun signs, exposing them that way. So there’s a whole sort of range of ways that we can all be keeping that conversation alive and loud.”
“No one should be lied to,” Bean explains. “Everyone should have access to information and be treated with dignity and respect their health care decisions.”
To learn more about actions to fight anti-abortion centers, join the Women’s Medical Fund in Pennsylvania for a social media week of action August 9-13th, including daily posts, stories, and IGLive on Tuesday to Friday with representatives from The Women’s Centers, ReproAction, Abortion Access Front and Equity Forward. The action is part of the Women’s Medical Fund’s recently relaunched their anti-abortion center campaign #ShutDownAACs.
For more information about anti-abortion centers, watch these two documentaries: 12th and Delaware and Jackson. For a humorous take, see Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Listen to a powerful podcast from Unladylike with first-hand testimony from a woman who was deceived by fake clinics.