How Fake Abortion Clinics Target People Seeking Abortion Care in Person and Online

Crisis pregnancy centers deceive patients, robbing them of reproductive healthcare by qualified medical professionals. They also increase violence at genuine clinics.

Clinic escorts outside of EMW Women’s Surgical Center in February 2019 in Louisville. (Facebook)

For close to a decade, EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Louisville, Ky.—a clinic providing reproductive healthcare, including abortions—shared a wall with BsideU, a fake abortion clinic, also known as a crisis pregnancy center (CPC). BsideU’s strategy was to confuse women seeking abortion care, luring them into their fake clinic, including putting up signs saying patients could park in front as long as they first came inside to get a parking pass. But once inside, the patients were harassed, shamed and sometimes even detained for hours at a time, causing them to miss their actual appointments at EMW.

The last independently owned clinic in Kentucky, EMW was the sole provider of abortion care for the state for about seven years—before abortion was completely banned in Kentucky. Madeline Dyer, now a National Clinic Access Project research associate, worked at EMW Women’s Surgical Center for four years, experiencing firsthand the challenges reproductive healthcare clinics face when a fake clinic sets up camp next door.

“[The CPC] was extremely deceptive and their sole purpose was to oppose abortion. They do not actually offer any real or meaningful assistance to people that come to them,” said Dyer.

Anti-abortion extremists operate fake clinics or CPCs under the guise of providing abortions—but in truth, their goal is to prevent pregnant people from receiving abortion healthcare. CPCs often set up a fake office in close proximity to a genuine clinic—one that actually provides a full range of comprehensive reproductive healthcare by qualified medical professionals—and then use deceptive and dangerous tactics to lure patients into their false office.

In Dyer’s experience, patients reported being separated from their support people, taken into other rooms and asked or forced to remove their clothes to undergo unnecessary ultrasounds. Their clothes were often left in other rooms or not returned for several hours—some for so long that they missed their actual abortion appointment at the real clinic next door.   

“They only target people wanting abortion care,” said Dyer. “They don’t go out into the community to help pregnant people in any way unless it is to scare, shame and intimidate them out of having an abortion.”

Four Women’s Health Services, an abortion clinic in Massachusetts, also had a CPC—Attleboro’s Women’s Health Center—move in next door. For five years and counting, this CPC has been deceiving pregnant people seeking abortion care as they arrive for appointments at Four Women’s Health Services.

 “They’re literally right next door to us—their address is 152 and ours is 150,” said Joanne, the clinic manager for 14 years now. (She prefers to omit her last name for privacy.)

Joanne said CPC workers routinely stand outside her clinic in lab coats holding check-in signs and claiming they worked with the clinic. Many patients have entered the CPC thinking they were in a genuine clinic. 

CPC Threats Persist Online, Too

In addition to in-person obstructions to providing healthcare, Attleboro’s Women’s Health Center also appeared as the first result in Google when someone searched for an abortion clinic in the area. 

The CPC’s Google Search ads include this one below.

Real people seeking abortion care are falling for these tactics—as evidenced in this Google review of Attleboro’s Women’s Health Center:

Note: This center does not provide abortion services!! My friend’s family member was trying to call another clinic and was inadvertently rerouted to the Attleboro Women’s Health Center. She clearly asked if she could book an abortion appointment and the center agreed to a booking. After arriving at the appointment, she was first presented with all of the options and assured that “she had other choices”. When she confirmed that she still wanted to proceed with an abortion, she was finally told: “We don’t do that here.”

Attleboro’s Women’s Health Center using online ads to lure patients is not an isolated incident: Google has made $10.2 million over the last two years by allowing anti-abortion groups to display deceptive search ads for fake clinics—all at the expense of women and pregnant people’s genuine access and need for reproductive healthcare. This is detailed in a new report, “Profiting from Deceit: How Google Profits From Anti-Choice Ads Distorting Searches For Reproductive Healthcare” from the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

“Google has sold out the trust of hundreds of thousands of Americans seeking reproductive healthcare and services to a multi-million dollar fake clinic industry that works around the clock to delay and prevent care using deceptive practices,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).  

Between March 2021 and February 2023, 188 fake clinic websites placed ads on Google Search and 84 percent of these fake clinics have targeted users searching phrases such as “abortion clinic near me.” 

These fake clinics target more than 15,000 different queries related to abortion. Up to 68 percent of users are unable to distinguish these ads from organic search results, and 71 percent of the websites utilize deceptive techniques such as misleading medical narratives, according to the report. 

Eight of these anti-abortion websites spent over $2.4 million in that two-year period on fake clinic deception and ads—up to four times more money than overt anti-abortion campaigns. Live Action, an anti-abortion extremist group and major promoter of the abortion “reversal,” spent a whopping $2.3 million.  

In September 2021, CCDH reported that Google had placed misleading and dangerous ads for abortion “reversal” on 83 percent of the searches for abortions, and Google promised that they “do not allow any ads with unproven medical claims and remove any ads promoting abortion reversal pills.” However, the new CCDH report shows fake clinics spent an estimated $2.6 million in promoting abortion “reversal” ads since then. 

The anti-abortion organization Human Coalition maintains a network of fake clinic websites and was exposed by The New York Times in 2022. They spent over $1.1 million on Google Search ads between March 1, 2021, and Feb. 28, 2023, by targeting people seeking abortion healthcare and leading them through a deceptive and harassing “counseling consultation.” 

A screenshot of one of their ads is below. 

In total, CCDH identified 976 fake clinic websites and 62 anti-abortion overt campaign websites. 

Fake clinics spend four times as much on Google Search ads in states where abortion is legal than where it is not, spending $7.3 million. 

An estimated 2,600 fake clinics operate across the country, outnumbering genuine clinics 3 to 1. They are present in 40 U.S. states.      

In a post-Dobbs America, it is more essential than ever for the internet to provide a safe and informative space for people seeking reproductive healthcare, said Ahmed—calling on Google as the dominant search engine in America to take responsibility to help create that space. Ahmed also points to the CCDH’s data as evidence that anti-abortion extremists are focusing on preventing people from receiving reproductive healthcare who are still legally entitled to it. 

Clinic Violence

Fake clinics are also known to provide headquarters, surveillance opportunities and breeding grounds for anti-abortion extremists as a means of inflicting violence and harassment against clinics and their doctors.  

“The CPC definitely encouraged the violence on the sidewalk and allowed for the protesters to feel they had some right to the public sidewalk, due to the CPC being on the street,” said Dyer. “They emboldened [anti-abortion protesters] and their continual harassment of the clinic and the patients who came to us for care.”

The 2022 National Clinic Violence Survey, conducted by the Feminist Majority Foundation (publisher of Ms.), found that clinic violence has increased in recent years and is connected to a clinic’s proximity to a CPC. According to the report:

  • Over 68 percent of clinics reported that they are located near a CPC. 
  • Of the clinics located near a CPC, 41 percent experience high levels of severe violence and harassment, compared to clinics not near a CPC (8.3 percent).

The report also shows 32.6 percent of clinics experienced high levels (three or more incidents) of severe violence or threats of violence or harassment in 2022—an increase of over 15 points since 2018.

Thirty-one percent of clinics reported experiencing one or more incidents or threats of severe violence—the second highest reported since 1996. These incidents include: blocking clinic access (16.2 percent), invasions (7.8 percent), stalking (10 percent), death threats (6.2 percent), bombings, arson, chemical attacks, physical violence, gunfire, bomb threats, arson threats and others.

Some of the described incidents of severe violence and harassment included a threat of a mass shooting at the clinic, emergency exits being blocked, and threats to a physician during a clinic invasion. More common harassment experiences include threatening phone calls, trespassing at the clinic and verbal harassment by anti-abortion protestors. 

Half of clinics said their doctors and staff experience intimidation and threats, the FMF survey also showed. Of those, 69 percent of clinics reported experiencing daily or weekly disruptive protests, and 23.2 percent of clinics reported protests daily.

A woman holding anti-abortion pamphlets stands just outside the buffer zone at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania on July 12, 2023. (Paul Weaver / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Threats Posed to Patients

CPCs pose a threat not only to actual clinics and their providers but also to the patients who enter their doors. 

Clearway Clinic in Worcester, Mass., advertises itself as a medical clinic providing reproductive healthcare—but its true goal is to dissuade and prevent patients from receiving abortion healthcare. On June 23, 2023, a class-action case was filed by Jane Doe against the CPC for deceiving a patient seeking reproductive medical care and medical malpractice.

The unnamed patient said they received an insufficient and unqualified ultrasound at Clearway Clinic failing to diagnose a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy—when a fertilized egg attaches outside of the uterus, usually in the fallopian tube. The patient eventually received a life-saving emergency surgery months later.

“The appropriate medical action would have been an immediate termination of the pregnancy,” according to the lawsuit. Instead, Clearway Clinic simply sent the patient on their way.

The lawsuit writes, “Clearway’s website entices [people] to schedule an ultrasound with the promise of being seen by board-certified doctors and nurses who will diagnose a pregnancy’s viability.” Their site promotes “pre-abortion consultations,” ultrasounds to “determine the viability of a pregnancy” and “abortion reversals.”

Abortion clinics, their providers and patients face obstructions, threats and violence, unlike any other form of healthcare. As Dyer said, “There are no fake dentist offices.”

To find an abortion clinic near you, go to I Need An Abortion

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Ally Dickson is an editorial intern at Ms. and a rising senior at New York University, majoring in international relations and journalism. Last summer she wrote for Bay City News, completing a capstone on how nursing students, professors and nurse practitioners are fighting for abortion training in California. Check out more of her work on LinkedIn.