Going Undercover at a Crisis Pregnancy Center

Crisis Pregnancy Centers claim to help pregnant people—all while spreading harmful disinformation.

A sign outside of Problem Pregnancy, a crisis pregnancy center in Worcester, MA. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“I’m pregnant,” I lied, sitting across from a staffer at a Crisis Pregnancy Center. 

“We’ll do everything we can to help,” she lied back. 

I’m lying because I’m not actually pregnant. She’s lying because as a Crisis Pregnancy Center employee, her mission is to dissuade me from getting an abortion with false and dangerous information. 

Crisis Pregnancy Centers have been in the news for years. There was an early CBS documentary in the 90s. A VICE News report in 2014. A John Oliver segment in 2018. Each tells the same story: Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) masquerade as medical clinics, but are not medical at all. They’re run by anti-abortion activists with an agenda: To stop abortions. 

That’s how I’m able to make peace with lying here, and at five separate CPCs across Indianapolis. I’m recording our conversation with a hidden camera. And this employee believes I’m pregnant, because moments ago I tested positive in the CPC bathroom with a pregnant friend’s urine I had hidden in a bottle in my jeans. 

A quick note on the cameras and urine: Everything you ever need to know is on the Internet. My recent Google search history includes: “Best hidden body cameras.” (The miniature pocket deluxe). “How did Project Veritas film.” (Unclear, but seems like mostly with phones). “Can you fake a pregnancy test with someone else’s urine?” (You can, and it’s legal so long as you don’t sign any paperwork). “Can you fly American Airlines with urine in a checked bag?” (You can). “Can urine pregnancy test tell how many months pregnant you are?” (It can’t). 

I tell the CPC staffer that I don’t know what to do. I think I want an abortion but I’m not sure. Could she please go over the options with me? I don’t know the risks and facts about abortion and want to understand. 

Before she even starts speaking, I can feel myself wanting to trust her. And that’s by design. Crisis Pregnancy Centers are made to look like doctor’s offices — I’m in a well-lit, cozy waiting room, I filled out forms with a receptionist, they offered me water. They lull patients into a false sense of trust. 

I’m un-lullable only because I’ve done research. I know that these centers aren’t medical, and neither is the staff. That’s how they’re able to avoid HIPAA patient privacy rules and the regulations that protect patients in medical settings. CPCs relay completely inaccurate medical information, but won’t be held accountable. It’s said that the anti-choice movement is good at organizing — and this is a prime example. 

But what they’re not good at is honesty. Because what this staffer told me next was the first lie in a miasma of disinformation over the following hour: 

“Well, I will tell you one thing. The girls that get abortions do end up with high suicide rates.” She opened with suicide. Fact check: There is no demonstrated link between abortion and suicide

She continues with the alleged emotional problems I would face: Depression. A “haunting” for the rest of my life. She tells me that if I abort this baby, and decide to have a child later in life, I won’t be able to fully love him, because I’ll always be reminded that I took away his brother or sister. 

@drjenniferlincoln Beeaking: undercover reporting in fake abortion clinics in #indiana. Look what they’re doing to people. #nowyouknow #learnontik #wewontgoback #obgyn #nope #pregnant #healthclass #investigativejournalism #letstalkabout ♬ original sound – Dr. Jennifer Lincoln

She quickly moves on to physical problems: “Your fallopian tubes will scar.” Fact check: there is no link between safe abortion and fallopian tube scarring. 

She tells me I’ll have high risks of bulimia, or anorexia. High risks of infertility — that it’s much harder to get pregnant, to ovulate, to carry a child safely to term. All of this is false. 

In fact, a study found that women denied abortion experienced elevated mental health risks and more negative physical outcomes. They also had four times greater odds of living below the federal poverty line. And their children are more likely to experience poverty and maternal bonding issues.

Once she hit her anti-abortion talking points, she moved on to encouraging me to give birth — promising that her center would help me “every step of the way” throughout my pregnancy. She would even provide support for four months after giving birth, including gas cards, blankets, baby food, and baby clothes. 

But after four months, she told me, I would have to look to the state for help. Most people in my position, who find themselves at CPCs and are refused abortions, are low-income. Great — the state of Indiana must be ripe with upward mobility opportunities for young, low-income mothers, right?

Wrong: The quality of life for low-income people in Indiana is bleak. There’s a shortage of affordable rental homes. A public health ranking among the lowest in the nation. And more relevant: A third of Indiana counties are more than 45 minutes from the nearest trauma center. Thirty-three counties are without an OBGYN delivery room. That seems difficult for a pregnant person facing pressing issues to take care of their health or family, to say the least. Or for a new mom with a child with issues who needs to make it to the ER. 

I smile, and nod, and take in this information — because we need it recorded. We need it on record. We need to expose these sham medical centers. Because right now, they’re raking in taxpayer funds. Texas alone has allocated over $200 million to CPCs across its state. 

Here’s the sobering reality: For every one abortion clinic in the U.S., there are three crisis pregnancy centers. That means for every pregnant person seeking support, they are faced with an overwhelming landscape of fake clinics that offer lies, manipulation, and shame instead of dignity. For every pregnant person without access to accurate information, they’re three times more likely to be talked out of their gut instinct than they are to feel validated.

But here’s the good news: We can fight back with information. One of the most powerful acts of defiance against anti-choice oppression is to learn, and share, the truth. Here’s what you need to know, for your family, your friend, or yourself: Abortion is still accessible in all 50 states. Abortion pills are safe, effective, and FDA-approved. In states without clinics, you can still get abortion pills through the mail. And there are countless organizations dedicated to spreading this information. Nonprofits like Mayday, where I work, Plan C, and Aid Access are dedicated to connecting pregnant people with the resources they need. 

We have to spread this information far and wide — because these centers propagate disinformation faster than we can check it. We may be fighting with one hand behind our back. But we have the upper hand — because at the end of the day, we’re telling the truth.

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Olivia Raisner is the creative director and lead investigative reporter at Mayday, a health education nonprofit. Previously, Raisner served as President Biden's traveling digital director at the White House and on his campaign.