“Here at ArborVitae, we recognize that free, timely, top-quality medical services provide indispensable information to women facing unexpected pregnancies who are engaged in what is often a difficult and stressful decision-making process,” reads part of the “Mission and Vision” section of the brochure of a clinic that is located in downtown Ann Arbor, near the campus of the University of Michigan. It’s a location that I know well, having grown up in Ann Arbor and graduated from U of M; in fact, this crisis pregnancy clinic is one floor below a coffee shop where I used to write.
Not that the words “crisis pregnancy clinic” appear anywhere in ArborVitae’s brochure, or in the facility’s small, quiet waiting room, or on the sandwich board propped up on the sidewalk in front of the building. And in this, ArborVitae is just like the thousands of other crisis pregnancy clinics (CPCs) operating around the country that represents one of the most manipulative arms of the anti-choice movement.
While its most visible messaging may be deliberately misleading, give ArborVitae credit for not hiding its agenda on either its website or other sections of its brochure. Unlike many other CPCs that strongly imply they offer comprehensive pregnancy care and options counseling, ArborVitae’s website is strewn with phrases like “life-affirming” and “culture of life.” Indeed, the volunteer application, which is accessible online, plainly states that volunteers must agree to neither advise nor refer anyone to have an abortion, or “obtain or use artificial means of contraception.” Whenever abortion is mentioned in this CPC’s materials, it’s primarily to push the idea of “post-abortion syndrome” — although, oddly enough, part of the answer to “what if I want an abortion” reassures women (troublingly) that “[s]ince 1 out of every 5 pregnancies ends in an early miscarriage, your fears may not be warranted.”
In other words, talking about abortion isn’t okay, because that would somehow violate the “culture of life” that this clinic is trying so hard to promote. Yet reassuring women that they have a decent chance of having miscarriage, and therefore won’t need to worry about what to do, is perfectly fine.
This contradictory tone is evident on other ways, too. ArborVitae’s website includes a lengthy story about a wanted pregnancy where the fetus was diagnosed with severe abnormalities that were incompatible with life. The parents-to-be decided to continue the pregnancy, and their daughter died shortly after she was born.
There is no doubt that what this family (whose connection to the CPC is unclear) went through was a tragedy. There is also no doubt that they regarded this pregnancy as a gift, and felt a great deal of peace and certainty in deciding to continue the pregnancy and have the child. But there is no recognition that the parents-to-be made choices regarding the pregnancy; that, in fact, they made many choices, sometimes against medical advice, because they wanted to do what was best for themselves, their faith and their family. Yet this story appears on the website of a clinic that is dedicated to denying other women their own full range of pregnancy choices.
There is nothing wrong with running a women’s health clinic that does not believe in abortion or contraception. Such clinics existed in this country before crisis pregnancy clinics became a tool of the anti-choice movement, and they exist in other countries. But it is important that such clinics are scrupulously honest with their prospective patients about exactly what types of services they will and will not provide, and that those services are provided by licensed professionals.
The vast majority of CPCs in the U.S. do not adhere to those very basic guidelines, allowing unlicensed volunteers to perform and read ultrasounds and call themselves “counselors.” They distribute brochures and pamphlets full of scientifically discredited or just plain wrong information. At a CPC in Washington, D.C. that I visited two years ago, multiple pamphlets in the waiting room warned that abortion raised a woman’s risk for breast cancer — a claim that has been roundly and repeatedly debunked by a number of reputable medical organizations, including the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization, and the National Cancer Institute. Other materials at that CPC promoted included the idea of “post-abortion syndrome,” a condition that ArborVitae and other crisis pregnancy clinics also love to talk about but that neither the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychiatric Association recognize as an official syndrome or diagnosis. Still, the anti-choice movement can’t stop promoting the idea that if a woman has an abortion, any negative thought or experience she ever has for the rest of her life can be traced directly to that decision; and that if a woman is even thinking about having an abortion, she should be ready to deal with an avalanche of negativity and self-loathing.
Such a simplistic narrative, which not only ignores any other circumstances of a woman’s life but also relieves her of all self-determination and autonomy, is in keeping with the one-dimensional and incomplete view of pregnancy and parenthood that CPCs promote. If they really wanted to offer their clients a balanced idea of what pregnancy and parenthood is like, they would offer ultrasounds performed and read by licensed professionals, counseling sessions conducted by licensed counselors that focus on what the client thinks and needs rather than the clinic’s ideological agenda, and information offered by neutral sources like the National Institutes of Health and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
I realize that might be too much of a pipe dream, given how invested — financially and otherwise — the anti-choice movement is in the idea of CPCs. But there is another way to ensure that such clinics are at least more transparent about their work, and that’s through legislation that would require just such transparency. In 2013 a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that would “give the Federal Trade Commission the ability to investigate reports of misleading claims from CPCs.” While any movement on the bill is unlikely in the near future, it will be instructive to see how it progresses, particularly as individual cities have encountered difficulties in their attempts to require CPCs to post signs stating what services they do and do not provide. But at least Austin, Baltimore, and New York City are trying to ensure that clinics are honest about their work. There’s no reason Ann Arbor and other communities can’t try, too.
Sarah Erdreich is the author of Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her family.