California is a haven for reproductive rights, but anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers still thrive

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Article written by Amita Sharma, Roland Lizarondo. Click here to read this article on the KPBS website.

Pregnancy Care Clinic uses the power of storytelling to send its anti-abortion message.

The San Diego center offers a video on its website of a self-assured Latina. Set against uplifting music, the single mom describes an emotional journey from the shock of discovering she is pregnant with her third child to her decision to keep the baby, with a nudge from Pregnancy Care.

“Pregnancy Care Clinic to me represents hope,” the woman says. “It represents hope of having a better future, despite all the odds against me.”

Pregnancy Care is a crisis pregnancy center. The center's representatives did not make themselves available for comment. KPBS consulted a number of authorities and stakeholders for this story, all of which provided observations about crisis pregnancy centers in general. None commented on Pregnancy Care specifically.

Elected officials, consumer watchdogs and reproductive rights advocates describe crisis pregnancy centers as a potent arm of the global anti-abortion movement and say their numbers are increasing. Many centers claim to provide an array of reproductive care services, but they don’t include birth control, abortion or referrals, according to advocates and regulators.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta said they are at best misrepresenting themselves and at worst giving vulnerable women potentially harmful advice.

“They are out there disguising themselves as being something that they're not," Bonta said. "They generally want to counsel you away from seeking an abortion. And people who are seeking an abortion come in and they're asking themselves, 'Why am I here?'"

Planned Parenthood says there are approximately 4,000 crisis pregnancy centers operating nationwide. Nearly 180 are located in California, according to The Alliance, a statewide women’s rights and gender equality organization.

KPBS identified 16 crisis pregnancy centers in San Diego County.

The woman in the Pregnancy Care video says she initially intended to have an abortion. She speaks of having a child while finishing her education and continuing her family’s path out of poverty. She says she canceled two appointments for an abortion. After scheduling a third, she phoned a friend at Pregnancy Care.

In the video, she says the friend urged her to at least come in for an ultrasound. That’s when she says she first saw her unborn child, Zion.

“I was amazed, as soon as I saw Zion, he was waving, he’s like, 'Hi, I’m right here. Can you look at me? I’m right here,'” the woman says. “I was crying because I was feeling ashamed of myself for wanting to get an abortion.”

Northern California-based family physician Christine Henneberg said ultrasounds are a key tool for many crisis pregnancy centers.

“I’ve had women say to me, 'You’re not going to make me look at the ultrasound are you?'” said Henneberg, who performs abortions. “Or, they tell me, the last place I went, they made me look at the ultrasound even though I didn't want to see it.”

She said because crisis pregnancy centers offer ultrasounds, many women assume they’re licensed to practice medicine. When they type “getting an ultrasound” into a Google search the centers will be the first thing that pops up, she said.

Henneberg said the misdirection of people seeking an abortion can have grave consequences.

“Especially if they're not given information, say, about findings on the ultrasound or incorrect information about what's on the ultrasound,” she said. “That can make the difference between having a pregnancy (or) terminating a pregnancy that they don’t feel prepared for.”

Henneberg said some of the most disturbing cases involve women who have come to centers after taking the so-called abortion pill. There’ve been instances when women visit a center after having taken the first dose, but don’t want to take the second. At that point, some are given an abortion reversal protocol, she said. Doctors say this course of treatment is potentially dangerous.

“This is completely experimental,” Henneberg said.

Susan Swift Arnall, vice president of legal affairs for the national Right to Life League, did not make herself available for an interview.

San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said many of the women who land at these places might think the centers are affiliated with the government or Planned Parenthood.

“They don’t know that there’s a hidden agenda,” Lawson-Remer said.

The board of supervisors declared San Diego County “a champion of reproductive freedom” in September 2021. Then, last August, supervisors passed a resolution backing proposed federal legislation to protect reproductive health data privacy.

“And I look at other states, much less counties, but really entire states where you don’t have a commitment by voters and you don’t have a commitment by elected leadership to defend our rights,” Lawson-Remer said. “ And you see no clinics providing abortion access, so it’s a fight.”

'Treated with dignity'

KPBS interviewed a woman who runs a center in San Diego County. She did not want her name or the name of her facility used out of fear that she would be targeted. She also made a point of saying that her organization is not a crisis pregnancy center.

 “We’re a medical clinic that offers a variety of services,” she said. “A crisis pregnancy center is a very antiquated term and now it’s a derogatory term.”

She said when a pregnant woman enters her center, the goal is to confirm her condition, determine how far along she is and make sure her pregnancy is viable.

"She is respected and treated with dignity,” the woman said. “There is nothing deceptive about what we do.”

In response to Bonta’s criticism of crisis pregnancy centers, the woman wanted to know why he was so passionate about the issue. And she had another question for the attorney general:

“Have you ever sat across from that woman making that decision and hearing her why, hearing her stress, hearing all the reasons that she is undecided about this pregnancy?,” she asked. “And really listening to it and not making that decision for her, but hearing the outside influences that are influencing her and making your decision based on that?"

She said her staff does not have an agenda beyond caring for the people who come to them. They educate women on the different forms of abortion, what they should ask their doctors and the physical and emotional after-effects of terminating a pregnancy.

Her organization does not offer abortions or abortion referrals because they are not within “its scope,” she said.

Retired San Diego ob-gyn Neysa Whiteman said the woman’s description is the very definition of crisis pregnancy centers, which she said have been around since the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision a half century ago.

“In the past 50 years, there has been a huge conservative group of people that have been providing funding to anti-choice programs, lawmakers, women, anti-choice everything,” she said. “In the best of all worlds, they shouldn’t exist.”

The Alliance report states that while 88% of crisis pregnancy centers offer free maternity and baby supplies, often they come with strings attached. Actually receiving the goods could be dependent on whether women attended Bible studies, abstinence seminars and other ideological programming, the report said.

State action

California lawmakers cracked down on crisis pregnancy centers in 2015 with a law requiring the centers to notify people that the state offers free or low-cost services, including abortions. It also required the centers to disclose if they are unlicensed.

But the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that law in 2018, saying it violated free speech rights.

In November, California voters passed Proposition 1, which amended the state constitution to include a fundamental right for a woman to have an abortion and use contraceptives.

For his part, Bonta issued a consumer alert last summer aimed at educating women about the centers.

“Knowledge is power,” Bonta said. “Being aware of the fact of crisis pregnancy centers is important so you can avoid them if you wish. And if you’re seeking them, then know exactly what you’re getting and not getting.”