Controversial crisis pregnancy centers are an important piece of the wider anti-abortion movement.
The accusations of false advertising for CPCs go beyond just the misleading websites; those criticisms have followed the centers ever since they were founded.
Dr. Andrea Swartzendruber, at the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia, has been studying CPCs and their mission for a long time.
"The centers have a primary mission of of preventing people or talking people out of seeking abortion, but they don't always make that mission clear," Swartzendruber said. "What they do is frequently is provide inaccurate health information, particularly the risks around the risks of abortion."
A study done by a women’s rights group looked at CPCs across nine states and found almost two-thirds of their health information was inaccurate or misleading. Originally, this is what the first crisis pregnancy centers were explicitly intended to do.
The founder of the first crisis pregnancy center, Robert Pearson, says so right in the manual, suggesting centers adopt “dual names” — one to attract pro-life donations, and another to “draw abortion-bound women.” At one point it quips, “A car dealer, when he’s advertising, does not list the things his auto won’t do. So why should we say we don’t do abortions?”
In the decades that followed, CPCs faced repeated scrutiny over this.
After an investigation in 1991, Congress condemned CPCs for consumer fraud. Later, in 2018, the Supreme Court heard a case over a California law requiring CPCs to disclose their lack of medical license in their ads. But the Court overruled it, claiming it violated the free speech of the CPCs.
Other states have successfully passed laws that either fine CPCs for deceptive advertising, like in Connecticut, or require centers to disclose whether they have licensed medical staff, like in New York.
"We've seen over the years certainly a consistent growing trend of crisis pregnancy centers presenting themselves as medical facilities and comprehensive health care clinics when in fact, that they are not," Swartzendruber said.
Now, that’s a key point in a lot of these legal debates and a concern for researchers. Places with clinical services, including abortion clinics, are under strict regulations on everything from the medical procedures themselves, to patient privacy. Crisis Pregnancy Centers, despite appearances, usually do not have medically licensed staff on hand, so they can avoid oversight.
"We know of circumstances whereby even volunteers at crisis pregnancy centers who are medically trained but concerned about infection... did turn to other regulatory boards like health departments and medical boards... kind of saying, 'We're not in charge of that, we don't regulate them,'" Swartzendruber said.
One major study from a women’s rights group found 56% of CPCs analyzed offered only “non-diagnostic” ultrasounds, which can’t measure certain health factors or to detect major problems with the fetus. That can miss health issues or misjudge how far along a pregnancy is, which can be dangerous for the mother.
Another reason CPCs are worth paying more attention to is how much they’re receiving in taxpayer funds. Several states directly fund these centers, with at least 10 diverting millions in federal aid meant for welfare and struggling families often directing it through “Alternatives to Abortion” programs.
For example, Texas saw a $100 million increase in 2019 followed by an additional $20 million in 2020 using such a program.
"Crisis pregnancy centers are definitely part of the kind of the grassroots movement and advocacy for abortion restrictions," Swartzendruber said. "Our data shows that in the states that have more crisis pregnancy centers, the number of centers actually predicts introduction of legislation to restrict or ban abortion. We found an association that the number of centers in the prior year predicted the introduction of legislation that would ban or restrict abortion."
Crisis pregnancy centers often focus on people with limited access to healthcare like younger women and girls, marginalized groups, or low-income households. And while they can provide affordable help or a safe space for certain women, there is growing momentum to get government funding re-directed to medically licensed women’s clinics.
Because if there’s anything the CPCs do show us, it’s that there’s a greater need for affordable childcare, resources for women, and access to healthcare. And maybe professionally licensed clinics can provide a safe and reliable alternative, without the risks found at some crisis pregnancy centers.