Crisis pregnancy centers steer women away from abortion
Abortion opponents say the centers provide support to women. Critics say the centers manipulate women seeking abortion care.
Hope Clinic in Nashville, was the target of vandalism on June 20, 2022, after the U.S/ Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. (Photo: John Partipilo)
When Cherisse Scott learned of her pregnancy, her partner had terminated their relationship, leaving money for an abortion as his parting gift.
In a telephone directory, Scott searched for an abortion clinic. ‘If you need an abortion, call us,’ an ad said. She booked an appointment, but when she arrived at the facility, the building resembled an office, not a clinic. A female staff member then questioned Scott about her life, her finances and her partner. She asked if the father was involved and whether Scott was on food stamps. When Scott reiterated that she sought an abortion, the staff member attempted to convince her otherwise.
“I said, ‘it was what’s best for me,’” said Scott, founder and CEO of Sister Reach in Memphis.
She was then led into another room where she was shown simulated abortion procedures of babies exiting wombs and other graphic imagery. She was forced to watch the videos for an hour before the staff asked her again. Did she still want an abortion?
“Maybe she thought that was going to change my mind,” she said.
But Scott wouldn’t budge. The staff member then called in another woman, this time a Black woman closer in age to Scott, who is also Black. This woman spoke about her experiences and seeking an abortion before changing her mind, and that she had lived “happily ever after.”
“That wasn’t my scenario at all, and I was in a relationship that was very expressive about not going through the pregnancy,” said Scott.
She finally asked if she was in an abortion clinic. The facility was a crisis pregnancy center, an organization seeking to intercept women with unintended pregnancies who might be considering abortions. They can be real clinics or only working under the illusion of being medically licensed.
Scott was told she would be referred to an abortion clinic. After taking off work for the second time, she arrived at the center and was placed in a room with a hospital bed and an ultrasound machine. Upon showing her images of the fetus, the technician then told Scott that if she were to go through with the abortion, “my uterus will be perforated, and I will no longer be able to have children.”
And that was the fear tactic that worked.
“I still wanted to be a mother at some point,” she said.
While crisis pregnancy centers might offer needed support to some during an unplanned pregnancy, for others the centers use deceitful tactics to convince women to keep their pregnancies, and often by using the lure of abortion.
Reproductive rights advocates argue the centers not only use questionable means to fulfill an agenda but they have been aided by the state, which contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to their operations.
“They’ll continue to get money and take advantage of desperate women,” said Briana Perry, a spokesperson for the Healthy and Free Tennessee, a reproductive rights organization.
Crisis pregnancy center Choices says it provides a wide range of services for pregnant women, including STD testing, ultrasounds, adoption and parenting services, and a “non-judgmental and safe space,” said Carol Ann Ferguson, executive director at Choices Chattanooga.
“What are the emotional, mental and physical aspects of that. Fully informed women will make better decisions,” said Ferguson, adding that for most of their clients, “abortion was on the table.”
For Scott that decision was stripped from her. She struggled for years to support herself and her son, her partner nearly nonexistent. Only when she became involved in the reproductive justice movement did she learn the truth of what had happened to her, that she had been told lies convincing her to keep her baby while ignoring her requests for an abortion.
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This summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organizatio case, which overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade codifying women’s right to an abortion, triggered a Tennessee law that bans abortions with no exceptions for rape, incest or fatal fetal abornomalities. The state ban was effective Aug. 25. It also carries penalties for doctors who perform abortions, even if to save the life of a mother, including criminal charges.
In the wake of the ban, reproductive rights advocates believe there will be a rise in facilities denying reproductive health care, medical and other services based on religious beliefs.
“Even faith-based hospitals may mislead patients were already denying services based on beliefs,” said Scott, referring to reports of pharmacists denying birth control for women and adoption services turning away Jewish and gay couples.
“They don’t have to be medically ethical because of their religion,” she said.
Crisis pregnancy centers have been intertwined and benefited from Tennessee politics.
They and other anti-abortion organizations receive state money through a dedicated funding source.
The Tennessee Department of Revenue has offered specialty “Choose Life” license plates since 2004 for an annual fee of $61.50, $35 of which is allocated to the Tennessee Right to Life Education Fund, an organization that provides resources for women facing unexpected pregnancies. Funds are to be used for counseling, financial assistance and a statewide awareness campaign. Part of the funds also reimburses social service providers who prepare adoptions for services and programs targeting at-risk women. In 2021 and 2022, the Choose Life license plates generated $218,098.65.
Tennessee Lookout did not receive a response from Tennessee Right to Life after multiple attempts.
Thousands in state funding have also been allocated to purchasing ultrasound machines for crisis pregnancy centers, anti-abortion clinics and pregnancy resource centers.
Last year, Gov. Bill Lee allocated $180,000 to buy ultrasound machines for crisis pregnancy centers and anti-abortion clinics across the states and made remarks of continuing to provide tax payer funds to these facilities.
The Psalm 139 Project, an anti-abortion organization that partners with the Southern Baptist Convention, buys ultrasound machines for crisis pregnancy centers and also received $466,000 for fiscal year 2022-2023.
A few centers also receive federal and state funding to support their educational programs. Hope Clinic has received federal funding since 2013 and received around $120,000 in 2021 for its sex-education programs geared to middle and high school students. Although comprehensive information on contraception is offered, the program focuses on abstinence as the primary method to avoiding diseases and unplanned pregnancies.
Lee, a founder of Hope Clinic, also serves on the clinic’s advisory board as a non-voting entity. Metro City Council member Joy Styles serves on the board of directors.
The National Institute of Family Life and Advocates (NIFLA) has also been active over the past two decades in funding crisis pregnancy centers and converting them into medically-compliant facilities, according to their website. NIFLA says 80% of women seeking abortions were persuaded to keep their pregnancies after an ultrasound.
NIFLA could not be reached for comment after repeated attempts since August. Tennessee Lookout reporters were told offices were closed until after Oct. 3.
Crisis pregnancy center staffers say the state abortion ban will not change the way they operate, said staffers.
“Just because there’s a ban in Tennessee, doesn’t mean a woman isn’t going to still consider an abortion,” said Ferguson.
Crisis Pregnancy Centers, anti-abortion facilties or pregnancy resource centers
The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) provides a range of limited services, from medical — ultrasounds, STD testing and treatment — to educational — sex education and parenting classes.
In Nashville, Hope Clinic for Women was founded in 1983 and for women facing unplanned pregnancies, said CEO Kailey Cornett. While abortion services are not provided nor referred, Hope Clinic offers information on the different types of abortions and counseling for women who have had abortions.
“Our goal is to help her make a decision that lines up with her value system,” she said.
For women who decide to keep a pregnancy, Hope Clinic offers parenting classes and financial support, which includes connecting women to case managers for employment opportunities. Women may also receive temporary assistance with bills, but the focus is “on empowering women to be financially independent,” she said.
While adoption may be discussed, Hope Clinic does not offer adoption services.
“A lot of women, in my experience, have a negative reaction to that word because of bad experiences with fosters (parents),” said Cornett.
Choices offers medical services.
“We are fully made up of a medical team. I know there are a lot of misconceptions that go around with pregnancy centers in general about not having medical staff, but that’s not the case for Choices,” Ferguson, adding that there are registered nurses, medical assistants and an OBGYN doctor on staff.
While Choices does not refer or provide abortions, the different procedures are discussed and side effects are explained in detail.
And if a woman has doubts about a medical abortion, Choices offers counseling and the unproven “abortion pill reversals.” Abortion reversal procedures are a claim supported by NIFLA that medical abortions can be “reversed” with doses of progesterone, but the claim is not supported by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Although the claim is unproven, there are local doctors offering the procedure, said Ferguson.
“We do not benefit from any decisions they make,” said Ferguson.
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