Every year, thousands of women like Nicole seek help at what appear to be secular medical clinics but are actually Christian anti-abortion centers. Throughout the United States, there are at least 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers, many of which belong to two religious anti-abortion organizations — Care Net and Heartbeat International. Some women arrive at those centers in search of Christian counseling or free diapers, but the vast majority are looking for professional advice to help them navigate unplanned pregnancies.
Increasingly, pregnancy centers are what's available. Around the country, access to abortion has eroded dramatically. As abortion regulations shutter medical clinics offering the full range of options, a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy finds herself in a very different landscape, one in which a pregnancy center is her most visible, most affordable — and sometimes the only — place to turn.
.... Centers increasingly look just like doctor's offices with ultrasound rooms and staff in scrubs. Yet they do not provide or refer for contraception or abortion. Many pregnancy-center counselors, even those who provide medical information, are not licensed. And even some workers who are licensed, such as nurses and ultrasound technicians, repeat myths about abortion and contraception. Last year, I attended Heartbeat International's annual conference, where nurses told me that birth control "introduces too many chemicals into your body" and that women "never recover" emotionally from abortion.
All of this is supported by tens of millions of federal and state dollars. At least 11 states now directly fund pregnancy centers, according to state contracts and contractor websites. Many states refer low-income pregnant women to anti-abortion centers on health department websites, as well as in "informed consent" materials that abortion providers distribute to patients.
Few states, however, have any laws regulating how pregnancy centers interact with women.
Every weekend, protestors block the clinic's driveway, and on some weekends, the police are called, clinic workers and escorts told me. The pregnancy center allows the protestors to stay, and protestors sometimes redirect women into the center. A physician at the clinic told me that patients periodically arrive for their abortion appointments late, after mistakenly first going to the pregnancy center across the cul-de-sac. That Saturday, women entering the clinic looked over their shoulders, then at the ground, some with tears in their eyes.
About 30 miles north of Little Rock, a billboard displayed between exits ("Pregnant? Need options?") advertised A Woman's Place, a pregnancy center in the small town of Cabot that has since been renamed Options Pregnancy Center. Cabot feels neither down-and-out nor especially fancy: Tidy homes and churches fade into a strip of chain stores like Kmart and Popeyes. Down the road, Options Pregnancy Center occupies a brick building beside a salon. Its website and ad in the high school paper offer "options counseling." It has an ultrasound machine. The needlepoint sampler in its bathroom says, "You will live with the guilt for the rest of your life knowing you made the choice to kill the precious life God placed in your womb for you to love."
Options Pregnancy Center doesn't provide or refer for contraception because Parker believes the Bible forbids premarital sex and she doesn't think condoms are effective. She says she does not believe public schools should teach students how to access birth control.
...Options Pregnancy Center hired pastors to lead its public school lessons. I spoke with two of those pastors and read their curriculum, which only discusses contraceptives in terms of failure rates and emphasizes the "negative emotional consequences" of premarital sex. One of the pastors, Daniel Tyler, told me he teaches the idea that "if you start having sex, you can't grow emotionally." He adds, "The stuff we're saying is stereotypical, like guys thinking about sex all the time ... We teach that even the way a girl dresses can draw a guy to think about [sex]. There's a whole chapter on that."
For decades, reproductive rights advocates have accused pregnancy centers of shaming or scaring women out of using contraception and having abortions. In 2006, Representative Henry Waxman of California published a report detailing how pregnancy centers used deceptive marketing and provided inaccurate health information. And just this March, NARAL Pro-Choice released the results of its own investigation, showing how CPCs misled and misinformed women. "Women are entitled to accurate, comprehensive and unbiased medical information with which they can make their own decisions," NARAL said in a report on CPCs this January. Still, the federal government and at least 11 states currently fund pregnancy centers, including Heartbeat affiliates.
In her workshop, "How to Reach and Inspire the Heart of a Client," Steinfeld told her audience about her mission to convert clients: "If you hear nothing today, I want you to hear this one thing," she said. "We might be the very first face of Christ that these girls ever see."