Hollow Promises, Lifetime Choices: The Appalling Duplicity of Pro-Life Crisis Pregnancy Centers - Pacific Standard

Hollow Promises, Lifetime Choices: The Appalling Duplicity of Pro-Life Crisis Pregnancy Centers

What are pro-lifers willing to promise in the cause of life?
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(Photo: Eakachai Leesin/Shutterstock)

Family Planning Associates sits on a wide, shadeless street next to a boarded-up panaderia in southeast Los Angeles County.

Last spring, Ana arrived there for an abortion. She was seven weeks pregnant, abandoned by a fair-weather Lothario who’d urged her to abort.

Outside the clinic, Ana encountered anti-abortion activists. Their words offered both promise and warning. They told her a baby is a blessing. They said abortion is murder. They knew a place that would help her.

Minutes later, Ana found herself in the passenger seat of a car speeding toward downtown Los Angeles.

Ana was 43 at the time. A Latina and a divorcée, she had delivered each of her four boys by C-section, and doctors had warned that this latest pregnancy would be high-risk.

Ana arrived at Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, in a predominately Latino neighborhood lined with storefronts advertising “Transportes Nice Express” and “FastPay Check Cashing.”

The center is one of about nine crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) in the Los Angeles area. CPCs are backed by religious and anti-abortion groups. There are nearly 3,500 in the country, far outnumbering abortion clinics, according to estimates from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

A pregnant woman who walks into a CPC will be offered a free pregnancy test, counseling, and, in some cases, an ultrasound. Offices are painted in soothing colors, and employees clad in lab coats convey an air of authority, bolstering the notion that, at a CPC, the woman’s best interest is paramount. But the true currency in such operations is biased information and emotional arm-twisting.

In a video posted on YouTube by Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, 26-year-old Evelin recalls how she was jobless and sleeping on her mother’s couch when she found out she was pregnant.

She describes how Alma, a counselor at Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, “showed me how big the baby was ... and she gave me a gift.” Evelin is overcome with emotion and cries as she recalls the baby book that swayed her decision. She eventually bore a boy. “It was a book, it was of a little bunny, and she told me it was the first gift.” Evelin continues: “So with that, that’s it, like he’s here to stay. Because he already has a gift.”

When Ana arrived at Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, she was offered more than a baby book. “They told me they was going to help me with clothes, a place to live,” Ana recalls.

She was handed a list of phone numbers. They told her help was just a phone call away, and Evelin had the baby.

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The receptionist at Los Angeles Pregnancy Services buzzes me in to a waiting room. It’s outfitted with comfy sofas, hardwood floors, and a rack of popular magazines. The soft sound of acoustic music washes over the room. A vanilla candle burns on a nearby shelf.

When I say I’m a reporter, I’m told I can only speak to the director, who isn’t in. The receptionist hands me a brochure that reads, “No estas sola. Podemos ayudarte.” You are not alone. We can help.

By phone and email, I tell the director, Astrid Bennett Gutierrez, I’m writing a story and have questions. What services does the center provide? How many women do they see annually? Why does a recent tax return indicate they spend more on advertising than on client services?

Gutierrez, who is also president of the advocacy group Hispanics for Life, didn’t answer my questions, except for one about money spent on advertising.

The center’s tax return from 2013, the most recent year available, shows that of the $353,261 the organization spent, 16 percent, or $57,954, went to "advertising/promotion," while four percent, or $14,461, went to “client support.” The center spent the balance on what appears to be rent, wages, and administration.

“Once that woman is in the door, they spend a lot of time emotionally blackmailing these women.”

I asked Gutierrez, why does the center appear to spend less on clients than ads? She replied in an email that "client support refers directly to a benevolent fund (cash) that we dispense to help some of our clients with utility bills and rent. Of course the majority of our funds goes to client programs.”

She added, “We'll probably rename that category to Benevolence Fund for clarity.”

Gutierrez added (in one of several emails last week) that she couldn’t answer my questions because she was out of the country, and therefore had no time for email. It was a transparent but very polite way of stonewalling me.

The center’s ad spending didn’t surprise Amy Everitt, vice president of special projects for NARAL Pro-Choice America. By design, she noted, CPCs emphasize marketing, not health care, even as they typically target women in poor and minority neighborhoods who have little or no access to medical services.

“Their goal is to dissuade ‘abortion-minded women,’ and that’s their term, not ours,” Everitt explained. “They spend all of their money and a lot of their time and effort to appeal to that woman.”

In a 2015 report, NARAL looked at two multi-million-dollar Christian umbrella groups for CPCs, Heartbeat International and Care Net, and found the organizations spent more than $18,000 a month on pay-per-click ads to target women searching for abortion providers.

In some states, tax dollars pay for these ads. The Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights think-tank, estimates that nearly two dozen states fund CPCs or anti-choice organizations, either through budget line items or sales of "Choose Life" license plates.

Three years ago, when the Texas Observer, a nonprofit political watchdog, investigated CPC spending, it found that the pro-life Texas Pregnancy Care Network cost the state an average of $237 per client, compared to $160 per client for family planning clinics unaffiliated with pro-life groups. The Observer described how the Texas Pregnancy Care Network in 2012 spent $90,000 on advertising. Yet the state continues to funnel millions to pro-life CPCs.

“They are taking money away from family planning and giving it to centers that are dealing with the aftermath, with people who are already pregnant,” Dr. Carla Ortique, a Houston obstetrician and a member of the Texas Medical Association told the Observer. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Do CPCs make promises they have no plan to keep?

But in the world of CPCs, it does. Ads attract vulnerable women, Everitt says, and “once that woman is in the door, they spend a lot of time emotionally blackmailing these women.”

This was how Yelp reviewer Wendy P. felt after she visited Los Angeles Pregnancy Services: “If you are looking to talk to someone about abortion options ... get ready for a graphic abortion video, mini babies, and pamphlets on death by abortion. Not cool on the scare tactics and lots of false and dated information.”

Wendy’s experience isn’t new. Nearly a decade ago, congressional investigators posed as pregnant 17-year-olds and sought advice from CPCs in 15 states. The resulting report, “False and Misleading Health Information Provided by Federally Funded Pregnancy Resource Centers,” described CPC staff who spread misinformation, such as, “all abortion causes an increased risk of breast cancer in later years.” In one center, an investigator was told the suicide rate in the year after an abortion “goes up by seven times”—a total canard.

A similar undercover survey of 19 CPCs in North Carolina published in 2012 in the journal Contraception showed that 16 percent of CPCs contacted provided similar misinformation about a scientifically unproven link between abortion and breast cancer, while 26 percent provided inaccurate information about mental health issues and fertility.

A recent yearlong investigation by NARAL Pro-Choice California found that 91 percent of CPCs visited falsely linked abortion with breast cancer, infertility, depression, and even death, yet almost half of the CPCs visited were licensed by the California Department of Health as community or free clinics.

Beyond that, there’s this question: Do CPCs make promises they have no plan to keep?

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When Ana called the phone numbers Los Angeles Pregnancy Services provided, “those numbers, they didn't help me,” she says. “I was just waiting and waiting and nothing happened.”

More than 20 years ago, Ana had immigrated to California to marry a former neighbor from her village in Michoacan, Mexico. As she raised four boys, Ana cleaned homes and offices, building a business that eventually earned her $25 an hour or more. It was a good living, enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Downey, a middle-class, largely Latino community.

Then a doctor-mandated bed-rest rendered Ana unable to work. Pregnant and without work, she lost her apartment. As time marched on, Ana thought about going to the abortion clinic.

She felt confused, alone. “It was a big influence when [Los Angeles Pregnancy Services] told me they were going to help me,” she says.

Homeless, she slept in her car until a friend took her in.

In “The Public Health Risk of CPCs,” a 2012 survey of research, Joanne D. Rosen, associate lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, describes how CPCs delay women’s access to abortion until the procedure is no longer an option.

CPCs, Rosen continues, “improperly influence reproductive health decisions and potentially increase the number of unintended births. These practices jeopardize the health of women and their children.”

Ana sees it in simpler terms. “I knew that it was going to be hard,” she says, “but I was expecting more help than they gave me.”

On May 1st, Ana's daughter was born. One month premature, she weighed five pounds, 11 ounces. Ana named her Melina, after her favorite ballad by the Spanish singer Camilo Sesto, and brought her home from the hospital to a spare room that barely fits a bed and crib. Ana’s four boys live with their father.

Many nights, Ana lies sleepless, wondering how she will find a job and, when she does, who will care for Melina.

Ana tries to make do on $530 a month in food stamps and government aid.

In July, I meet Ana for breakfast. She lowers Melina’s car seat into a booth at Gloria’s Cocina Mexicana in Downey before sliding in next to her. Ana sips cup after cup of coffee, hardly eats, boxes up much of her meal. Melina, who has a thatch of dark hair and her mother’s big brown eyes, sleeps.

Ana feels anxious to regain her life.

“If I’m waiting to see if something is going to happen, nothing is going to happen,” Ana says. “I hope that I get a job soon.” Then, she adds, almost offhand, “I’m too old to have a baby.”

The remark seems like an opening. I wonder if she considered her trust in Los Angeles Pregnancy Services misplaced, and I wonder if she regretted her decision to remain pregnant­—an impossible question.

Would she do anything differently? I ask. Ana grows silent and looks at Melina. “It is so hard,” she finally says. “But when I see her face, oh my God, I’m so happy.”

In a twist of irony, Ana now gets help from Los Angeles Pregnancy Services. Every month, they give her a package of diapers.

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In June, I stood on the sidewalk where pro-lifers had persuaded Ana to keep her baby about a year earlier. It was a Sunday, a day the clinic performs abortions, and teenage activists brandished anti-abortion signs and shouted into bullhorns. I was there to write a story about them. The activists told me Ana had come by moments earlier to show off her infant daughter.

“You just missed her,” said one of the activists, who showed me a photo she’d snapped on her iPhone. “Look, she’s adorable.”

I called Ana; a few hours later, she texted me a photo. She wrote: "She is my baby, I spoke with you in the morning, she was saved by the people that is outside on the clinic on Downey."

Weeks later, I asked Ana about that recent day. Away from the admiring coos over her infant daughter—and perhaps realizing that I wasn’t bound to that group, and that her story was her own, not a fiction to support a false narrative—a more complicated story emerged.

Ana told me she didn't stop that day to show off her baby, as the activists had said. Rather, she was looking for a woman from a local church who’d given her baby supplies and money in the past. Ana knew that sometimes, on abortion days, the woman could be found outside the clinic. Ana hoped the woman could spare some diapers, and maybe a few dollars.

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