A look at the labeling, legitimacy and legislation surrounding anti-abortion pregnancy centers, and groups like Feminist Flag Corps that want to see better transparency
The Planned Parenthood East Columbus Surgical Center opened its doors to peaceful surroundings on a Friday morning in early August. It was quiet save for the low hum of cars whizzing by on East Main Street. The parking lot surrounding the white and green building was empty except for two cars and three people wearing multicolored vests marked “clinic escorts.” The temperature was cool — a cruel tease before the noon humidity would set in.
Shortly after 8:30 a.m., a young woman with brown hair flowing down to her jean shorts appeared. She plopped down a large sign at the edge of the driveway, facing the street. “Abortion” was spelled out on the sign in large block letters above a bloody image labeled, “15-week aborted baby.”
She was joined by a tall, blonde man who paced back and forth in front of the center, brochures in hand. As clients arrived and departed the clinic, accompanied by the escorts, the man made a series of statements.
“This place is not safe for you.”
“It's not too late to cancel your appointment.”
“Your baby has ten fingers and ten toes.”
The unnamed man and the woman, Lisbeth Nelson — both from anti-abortion nonprofit Created Equal — were gradually joined by numerous, unaffiliated individuals. Mike, a follower of controversial anti-abortion leader Dave Daubenmire, mentioned he was headed to protest the Mansfield Pride festivities the next day. Last to arrive was a Spanish-speaking group from Christ the King Catholic Church, which prayed the rosary together. One woman held a baby.
Some protesters directed patients to a building a few yards east of the clinic, on the corner of East Main Street and South Hampton Road. Its large pink sign, “Women's Care Center,” features an outline of a mother holding a baby, and promises free pregnancy testing and ultrasounds.
“I only get a few seconds to call out to them … but if they do come and talk to me, I'll even walk them over there,” said 19-year-old Nelson, who has been with Created Equal for four years. “I would encourage them to go and just talk to them first and get the real facts and all the information. … I want them to be informed before their decision.”
“The whole goal of the anti-choice protesters is to prevent a woman from entering Planned Parenthood and get them to go to one of the pregnancy centers,” said Claressa Dalloway, a clinic escort who co-founded reproductive justice organization Feminist Flag Corps with Michelle Love-Davis. “And they do it in very deceptive ways. … They always try to make it [seem] as if it's a full-service health facility.”
According to Dalloway, Love-Davis and many others, Women's Care Center and Women's Clinic of Columbus — located directly across East Main Street from Planned Parenthood — are crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). The term describes pro-life, often religious-based organizations some accuse of deceiving women about their services, shaming them into continuing their pregnancies and providing medically inaccurate information.
To others, like Nelson, they are “pregnancy resource centers,” which tell women the truth about the effects of abortion and help provide housing, baby clothes and other resources.
With more than 100 CPCs — a select number of which received nearly half a million in state funding this year — Ohio remains a major part of the national discussion about the labeling, legitimacy and legislation surrounding the centers.
While CPCs have been around for decades, in recent years they've been the subject of increased media attention, advocacy work and legislation. In 2010, filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing released the award-winning “12th & Delaware,” a documentary profiling an abortion clinic and the Catholic-based crisis pregnancy center across the street in Fort Pierce, Florida. The film features interviews with patients, staff and protesters, and provides insight into the tactics of the CPC.
“We're actually on opposite sides of the street,” the CPC manager, Anne, said on-camera during staff training, referencing a co-location strategy employed by centers nationwide. “Abortion clinic, pregnancy center; darkness and light; death and life. It doesn't get more distinct than that.”
She also provided tips for diverting the conversation when women call the center inquiring about abortion services. “If she calls and says, ‘Do you do abortions?' and I say, ‘No,' [she hangs up]. … I'm trying to get her in the door.”
Also in 2010, NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, a nonprofit membership and lobbying organization, began an investigation of the state's CPCs, which then numbered 107. Each center was called to determine what they would disclose about their services over the phone. Then, a random sample of 55 centers — four in the city of Columbus — were selected for in-person visits.
Undercover investigators went to the centers, acting out different scenarios. Some women took pregnancy tests that came back negative; some informed the center they'd already taken pregnancy tests that came back positive; and others brought in urine samples from pregnant women so they'd test positive onsite. Groups varied in their requests for birth control, abortions and counseling.
According to the subsequent report, “Ohio Crisis Pregnancy Centers Revealed,” which was released in 2013, “less than half of the centers were upfront about who they were and what they stood for, with 42 percent stating they were pro-life, and 60 percent being unwilling to admit that they were not medical facilities.”
Among the investigators presenting as pregnant, 38 percent were offered free ultrasounds, most commonly to ensure the pregnancy was “viable.” Only one CPC provided birth control services, but focused solely on natural family planning — a method of birth control that does not involve medicine or devices, instead relying on the body's natural functions to determine what days of the month a woman is most likely to get pregnant. Some CPCs initially offered to help with abortion referrals, but only one center provided a specific location.
“The biggest [finding] out of the report was the medically inaccurate information,” said NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Deputy Director Jaime Miracle. “Very frequently they were told that abortion caused breast cancer [or that] abortion would cause you to be infertile or to have mental health problems or become drug-addicted.”
Centers also exaggerated miscarriage rates to delay decision-making, and were judgmental of women's decisions, Miracle said.
Miracle also referenced the barriers to material assistance offered. “So you go in and you take a parenting class, or if you volunteer for a couple hours in the center, or you go to a counseling session, or, in some cases, go to Bible study, you earned ‘baby bucks' that you could spend in the store to get what you wanted,” she said. “So a lower-income woman just needing a pack of diapers or a container of formula or something couldn't just walk in and get that.”
The report came out as a significant change was made in the state budget. In 2013, the Ohio Parenting and Pregnancy Program was established, allocating Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) dollars for organizations that “promote childbirth, parenting, and alternatives to abortion.”
According to records obtained from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, amounts between $300,000 and $430,000 have been divided among CPCs each year since 2015. In 2018, six centers, including Heartbeat of Toledo and Pregnancy Decision Health Centers (PDHC) in Columbus, received nearly $430,000 in government funding.
Pro-life nonprofit Ohio Right to Life advocated for CPCs — which they are careful to call pregnancy resource centers — like PDHC and Dayton's Elizabeth's New Life Center to receive state funding; the organization even hosted a grant-writing workshop.
“The abortion industry has a stake in calling them crisis pregnancy centers because [that says] you don't have time; you need to figure this out right now,” said Jamieson Weaver, Ohio Right to Life director of communications & marketing. “When women walk in a pregnancy resource center, the first thing they want to say is, ‘You have time to make a decision that's right for you.'”
When asked about NARAL's claims of CPCs' deceptive tactics and medically inaccurate information, Weaver said she hadn't read the report, but pointed to the abortion industry's “profit motive.”
“NARAL has a stake in keeping abortion legal,” she said. “They are going to make organizations that don't necessarily agree with abortion [look bad]. … Every pregnancy center isn't created equal, [but] I would say the majority of the pregnancy centers are doing their best to give women very accurate information.”
Weaver stressed that CPCs strive to inform their patients of the “full risks and after-effects” of abortion. “There's a reason there's an entire campaign called ‘Silent No More,' where women who've had abortions are speaking out because they have been traumatized,” she said.
Women's Care Center was established in South Bend, Indiana, in 1984. Today, it has grown to 25 centers in eight states, with two locations in Columbus — on East Main and East Broad — that have operated since 2008. The privately funded organization emphasizes its counseling services and “homey,” highly visible appearance marked by its large pink signs. In an e-mail to Alive, Vice President Jenny Hunsberger said the center provides medical-grade pregnancy testing and ultrasounds performed by “ultrasound-trained nurses.”
When asked if Women's Care Center was pro-life, Hunsberger said the organization was “not political.” Additionally, it does not support or partner with the protesters outside of Planned Parenthood, she said.
In response to claims of misinformation, judgment and coercion associated with CPCs, Hunsberger said, “1,908 babies were born to Women's Care Center moms in Columbus last year. That is 1 in 10 of all babies born in Franklin County. Women's Care Center is not a ‘crisis pregnancy center.'”
Next door at Planned Parenthood, practice manager Jamie Hamilton said she can't speak specifically to Women's Care Center's approach — an acknowledgement that CPCs, which are unregistered and largely unlicensed, can differ greatly from one facility to the next — but she has had patients who've come in after visiting CPCs.
“Oftentimes people will come to us … thinking they're much further along than they actually are,” she said. “Gestational dating can be inflated. … We've also had people come in, and they've said things like, ‘I went to one of these pregnancy centers. They won't stop texting me. They tell me that they're going to find out if I did have an abortion. If they call here, will you tell them that I was here?' And, of course not [is my answer].”
Hamilton also noticed that Google Maps will direct her across East Main Street to Women's Clinic of Columbus — also considered a CPC — instead of Planned Parenthood. The center similarly utilizes green and white colors on its sign and building, and Hamilton noted the name is strikingly similar to Planned Parenthood's previous name, “Central Ohio Women's Center,” which is still visible on its sign.
According to its website, the Women's Clinic of Columbus offers free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds and “accurate information on pregnancy options including abortion, parenting and adoption.” Abstinence education and baby boutiques are also listed among its services. While not mentioned on the website, the center appears to have had some affiliation with the World Harvest Church in Canal Winchester. On the church's website, Pastor Rod Parsley is listed as the leader of Women's Clinic of Columbus, “a pro-life clinic.”
(Women's Clinic of Columbus Executive Director Char Dunbar declined to be interviewed for this story.)
By contrast, Birthright of Columbus distances itself from the “clinic” label. “We've got a sign on our window that says, ‘Not a medical facility,'” Director Barb McMullen said of the organization, which provides pregnancy tests and baby and maternity clothes. (In Seattle, the King County Board of Health imposed a 2017 rule requiring crisis pregnancy centers to post signs stating that they are not health care facilities; no such law exists in Ohio.)
Birthright operates locations on Mound Street and on North High Street behind In Review Thrift Shop, which benefits the pregnancy center. The organization is otherwise supported by charities and grants.
Though McMullen said Birthright is not faith-based, she admits the majority of volunteers and supporters are Catholic. And while they don't advertise themselves as a pro-life organization, “what we do is pro-life,” she said. “We gently guide them towards making another life plan.”
On June 26, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law that required state-licensed crisis pregnancy centers to post notices about low-cost abortion, contraception and prenatal care. The court found the law at odds with the centers' free speech rights under the First Amendment.
Under the same law, unlicensed clinics were required to disclose they were not licensed by the state. The court found those requirements “too burdensome.”
The ruling in the case, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, which could set a precedent nationwide, was celebrated by pro-life communities and lamented by pro-choice advocates.
A month earlier, the Trump Administration proposed a change to the Title X federal family planning program, which some feared would result in abstinence-only organizations — like CPCs — being given preferential funding over Planned Parenthood facilities. In Ohio, Pregnancy Decision Health Centers and Elizabeth's New Life recently partnered to apply for Title X funding.
Columbus City Council passed a resolution opposing Trump's proposal. In a statement to Alive, Councilmember Elizabeth Brown provided her perspective on CPCs.
“Every woman deserves accurate information and competent care when she enters a health care facility,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is not what women receive at ‘crisis pregnancy centers.' In fact, most CPCs provide the opposite: a lack of medical qualifications and misleading information. Quality, comprehensive reproductive health care is common-sense public policy. CPCs fail to measure up to the most basic standards and should not receive taxpayer dollars.”
As the national conversation surrounding CPCs continues, some are highlighting the centers' effects on specific communities, like women of color. On June 28, Essence published an article, “Fake Pregnancy Centers Popping Up Across The Country Pose A Serious Threat To Black Mothers.”
The piece outlines the prevalence of CPCs in and near black neighborhoods, and advertisements targeted to black audiences. It also includes interviews with former patients negatively impacted by CPCs.
“There are some very good things that CPCs do,” Dr. Monica McLemore, a public health nurse and research scientist, told Alive. McLemore, who serves women of color in California, pointed to the free services and material resources that some CPCs provide. “They actually found a gap in health care and health services provision that needs to be filled.”
But the harm caused by manipulation and medically inaccurate information creates a “weird juxtaposition,” she added.
Coincidentally, in Ohio, CPCs have received funding to tackle infant mortality, which is affecting women of color at staggering rates. Jamieson Weaver of Ohio Right to Life mentioned Heartbeat of Toledo has been able to “plug in” with state funding. And in a statement to Alive, Columbus-based Pregnancy Decision Health Centers President Julie Moore said, “PDHC contributes to city and state efforts to reduce infant mortality by providing crucial services to pregnant women and families at no cost.” (PDHC was awarded $100,000 in state funding in 2018.)
Jessica Roach, co-founder and executive director of ROOTT, a black woman-led reproductive justice organization also combating infant mortality, hasn't had a significant number of clients who have had issues with CPCs. But she's monitoring it.
“I do anticipate that that's going to become more of a conversation, in particular in the fall as we start to launch comprehensive reproductive and sexual health courses … [and] outreach into middle schools, high schools and college populations,” she said.
In anticipation of future budget decisions, pro-choice and pro-life organizations will continue advocating, women will keep visiting Planned Parenthood, and protesters will keep showing up to direct them to a CPC, often a short walk away.
“You have to understand these people's motivations,” Ohio Right to Life's Weaver said of the protesters. “From where they're standing, they're seeing a woman who is pregnant, and they believe that having an abortion would end that baby's life. … [They] are trying to say, ‘Hey, you might not know this, but these pregnancy centers want to help you.' … And for some women that's enough. That's enough to know that there's someone who would walk alongside them in it.”
In the meantime, pro-choice activists are remaining vigilant. For example, the reproductive justice organization Ladyparts Justice, founded by “The Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead, has helped drive the national #ExposeFakeClinics campaign, and staged actions outside of CPCs.
“If the Supreme Court's going to say you have the First Amendment right to lie to women about their medical decisions and about the ramifications of their medical decisions, it's up to us to inform our citizens,” said Winstead, who brought her “Vagical Mystery Tour” comedy and activism show to Columbus earlier this summer. “They should be pressuring legislators to not fund programs that are diverting money from actual families in need.”
“It's not a problem that they exist,” said Miracle of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, which is currently sitting on new data from a follow-up investigation of CPCs conducted in 2016-2017. “[It becomes a problem] when they do the coercion and they provide medically inaccurate information and they hide that they have a position on this issue.”