Live in the Wild: An Introduction to Fake Abortion Clinics

Y’all probably know I was once a true-blue anti-abortion crusader, back in my fundagelical days. The document that finally broke me of my allegiance to that sick crusade is the same one that began my apostasy: a Pearson manual, which is the go-to, end-all, be-all handbook for Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPC). The CPC is one of the most slickly-packaged of all of the fake women’s clinics, pretending to be about providing counsel to frightened women facing unexpected pregnancies, but it’s actually something much darker and much more malevolent than even that. And now I’ve got a copy of what is, essentially, a Pearson manual. Today, I’m going to show you what these clinics are, why they are evil incarnate, and what their general tactics are.

Some of this you might know–and some if it you might not. By the end, you should have a good overview of the whole fake-clinic world.

(Gareth Thompson, CC.)
(Gareth Thompson, CC.)

An Overview of the Crisis Pregnancy Center and Fake Clinics.

Obviously, we’re fighting Satan. . . A killer, who in this case is the girl who wants to kill her baby, has no right to information that will help her [do that].

Robert Pearson, in a 1994 speech relayed by Deb Berry of Orlando Weekly

Crisis Pregnancy Center (CPC) is a string of fake abortion clinics all over the United States that claim to offer women compassionate, medically-accurate advice in a medical setting as well as free pregnancy tests to help their clients decide how to deal with unintended pregnancies. None of those offers are genuine or sincere. They’ve been in operation since 1967, which–you might remember from last time–fits in with the general timeline about the beginnings of the culture war against abortion rights, though this would have been well before fundagelicals climbed into bed with Catholics to politicize their adherents.

The clinics put out deceptive-advertising blitzes aimed at women who are understandably terrified about being pregnant. Indeed, their target market is what we might call rich, since about half of all pregnancies in the United States are in fact unintended (meaning that the women didn’t want to become pregnant at the time), though that number’s dropping.

Though these fake clinics frequently make the misleading claim that they are medical clinics, they are anything but. Their equipment is substandard to say the least–and it’s more than likely that nobody on staff is qualified to correctly run the tests or to interpret the results of them (which is how one fake clinic volunteer managed to inform a woman that her IUD was actually a fetus); the pregnancy tests they offer are purely the basic over-the-counter ones anyone could buy at a grocery store; and most do not have a single licensed medical professional on staff. The information they provide women is uniformly misleading–based on old or outdated information or simply made up–and drawn from the vast bank of pseudoscience that anti-abortion fanatics have amassed over the years. Their centers are staffed by Christian volunteers who are very carefully coached in how to manipulate women and deceive them; none are required to have any real training in counseling or medicine. And the clinics often offer to provide supplies and ongoing support for the women and babies they “save” from abortion, but this claim is just as false as all the other ones they make, as we’ll also be seeing as we go.

The shocking degree and scope of the dishonesty of the Crisis Pregnancy Center model is the source for the term fake clinic, in a nutshell. The groups operating these fake clinics would love for people to think that they are real ones, but the differences between them and a proper Planned Parenthood-style real clinic are like night and day.

These fake clinics are quite the darling of the Republican Party despite–or because of–their many shortcomings. Jeb Bush was the first to allow “Choose Life” license plates, and he donated over half a million dollars to the CPC chain after he became governor. Other states directly fund fake clinics, while 21 states as of this report from 2016 force women to go to fake clinics for “counseling” and ultrasounds. Other states give welfare funds to fake clinics instead of to food stamps or something else that actually would help women and children.

This state support has raised millions for the CPC, though generally speaking in my experience they talk up donations more than seeking state funds–my Pentecostal church at one point was involved in shilling for them, since their mission of criminalizing abortion outweighed their suspiciously ecumenical bent. They are very probably the most evergreen of all of the causes near and dear to fundagelical hearts.

Also, the representatives of these fake clinics often tour public schools to disseminate abstinence-only miseducation, which offers medically-unsound, shame-based advice to children to terrorize them out of wanting to have sex. Not only does this miseducation not work to prevent teen sexual activity, but it actively harms children by leading them to engage in supremely risky behavior.

And it’s all done under the auspice of the CPC being a purely philanthropic, charitable organization seeking to improve their communities, which is, as we’ll see, as false as any of the other things their volunteers tell the desperate women who make the mistake of visiting one of their fake clinics.

A Target-Rich Environment.

The biggest factor in a woman’s choosing of abortion care is whether or not her pregnancy was intended–because one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the rate at which unintended pregnancies are aborted (40%). (Because there are simply way fewer unintended pregnancies thanks to improved access to contraception, the actual number of total abortions has dropped for all demographics, most dramatically for women of color.)

The creators of fake women’s clinics seek to reach women who think they might be facing unintended pregnancies, therefore. The map of fake clinics looks like a map of misery and dysfunction; you’ll note that they cluster around areas where there’s a high level of income disparity, crushing amounts of poverty, and plenty of people of color (POC).

Further, these fake clinics are looking for women who fall outside the healthcare system.

Ideally, they want a client who is vastly under-informed about reproductive options and choice, susceptible to emotional manipulation, not trusting her own family, partner(s), or community to support her, and not likely to seek a real doctor or clinic for help–either because she distrusts them, or because she has no or inadequate health insurance.

Fake clinics seek to divert their clients from real healthcare, attempting–with their shoddy equipment, substandard practices, and an incompetent volunteer force–to supplant and replace that healthcare.

A Lack of Evidence, As Per Normal.

The true nature of these fake clinics becomes readily apparent when one realizes that their operators recognize the relationship between unintended pregnancies and abortion, but instead of focusing on lowering the number of unintended pregnancies, which has a well-documented impact on abortion rates, they go the other route in trying to shame and trick the women facing pregnancy to get them to forego abortion care, which clearly does not have anywhere near the return on investment (ROI) that the former strategy does.

In fact, though it’s not hard to find fans of fake clinics touting their effectiveness, I couldn’t find a single bit of real data about exactly how much impact fake clinics have had on any area’s abortion rates. Given their lack of concern for informed consent and patients’ rights, it seems likely that any success they have at moving that needle comes at a great human cost. (See the Turnaway Study and this incredible New York Times piece on women denied abortion care. Oh, and if you’re interested in general stats, here’s the CDC for you.)

But to a lot of people involved in that crusade, the crusade itself is the important part, not its results. After all, the abstinence-only miseducation crowd operates under precisely the same thinking. Pam Stenzel, one of their favorite miseducators, is on record as saying she knows perfectly well that her speeches don’t do anything to reduce teen pregnancy or sex (unfortunately, the Daily Beast article with that quote is gone, but here’s a Facebook post that reproduces the relevant parts, copied below)–and doesn’t care at all about her miseducation curriculum’s eye-popping failures:

“Reclaiming America for Christ,” in which [Pam Stenzel] rejected the idea that abstinence education should be judged by its effectiveness. “People of God,” she cried, “can I beg you, to commit yourself to truth, not what works … I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day I’m not answering to you, I’m answering to God!”

Given how close the association is between abstinence-only miseducation and fake clinics, as well as their adherents’ general tendency toward magical thinking, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that these fake clinics’ operators face a similar ineffectiveness and a similar lack of concern about it. That’s another topic we’ll be delving into later, but I just wanted to put it out there for now.

The Evil Empire is Born.

“I don’t like what I went through,” she says. “Bizarre is putting it lightly. It’s like I slipped into hell for a minute.”

A visitor to a fake clinic, around 2009

Robert Pearson was exactly the zealot that the anti-abortion crusade needed in the 60s. Clearly a fellow with decent organizational skills and the fervor and ruthlessness of a modern-day Inquisitor, he founded the first CPC clinic in Hawaii in 1967. You’ll find surprisingly little information about him online, other than the entirely unsurprising fact that he sees himself and his chain of fake clinics as holy paladins who are fighting against “Satan” himself to totally save babies from annihilation.

By now there are literally thousands of them all over the nation–and many outside the country as well. Some are actually branded CPC, though by now crisis pregnancy clinic is an umbrella term for any such fake clinics. In the United States, there are considerably more fake clinics than there are actual abortion-providing clinics.

You will, however, search in vain on that Hawaii fake clinic’s site for a single mention of a single staffer or officer involved. I pored over it for as long as I could stomach it. There’s nothing on it about Pearson himself, nor about the medical qualifications of anybody involved with the fake clinic–though I did find elsewhere a fascinating set of accusations against it by a pro-choice group in the same state. There’s not even a way to tell which anti-choice group is behind the fake clinic.

Mother Jones has an excellent PDF-friendly document outlining the general history of the fake clinic chain Pearson founded,  however. It tells us that he wrote his now-infamous CPC manual, “How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center,” in 1984. And it doesn’t look like much has changed since then in the manual’s organization or information.

If you’ve seen Independence Day, then you probably remember the end where the American heroes are telegraphing to other nations’ military forces what they’ve discovered about taking down the alien ships surrounding Earth. Well, if you think of those alien ships not as villains but rather as women seeking abortion care, then that’s more or less the impact that Pearson’s manual had on other anti-abortion crusaders.

Manual for Destruction.

When she showed up for her nonexistent appointment [at Planned Parenthood], she was met by the police, who had been erroneously tipped that a minor was being forced to abort. The crisis pregnancy center staff followed up this harassment by staking out the girl’s house, phoning her father at work, and even talking to her classmates about her pregnancy, urging them to harass her.

Amanda Marcotte, regarding a young woman deceived by a fake clinic

I didn’t even need to see the scans sent to me by a very kind reader to know how the Pearson manual goes. It is indelibly inked into my mind. See, Biff volunteered for them for a while and accidentally left his copy of that manual at home one night while he was off lying to women at the fake clinic.

I wasn’t supposed to see it, of course–but my then-husband should have known what would happen if he was ever dumb enough to leave it in the house with me.

Look, I eventually read everything.

The Pearson manual contains volunteer hiring criteria and various forms that volunteers must sign, and statements of faith and intent. Then it moves on to various arguments against abortion, including pseudoscience and the Bible clobber verses that fundagelicals mistake for foolproof zingers. Then the manual goes into how to set up a CPC and what kinds of tracts and other printed material to leave around. The manual I saw even specified which anti-abortion movies and videos to show on the TV in the waiting area. It’s all incredibly detailed and incredibly damning–and it’s no wonder at all to me that both the book I saw and the scans I received stressed that their contents were to be kept top secret.

Among other things, Pearson advises fake clinic operators to train volunteers to lie to callers and visitors alike, to blatantly emotionally manipulate them, and to confine them to tiny little rooms to evangelize them and harangue them about their sex lives for hours while they await the results of their “free” pregnancy tests.

Amanda Marcotte even recounts a very chilling tale from one Planned Parenthood worker who recalled that in the 1980s, fake clinics would offer to provide shelter to desperate pregnant women–and they would, right up to the last day when a legal abortion could be obtained. Immediately after that Rubicon had been crossed, they’d throw the women out on their ears, now that they couldn’t obtain legal abortion care anymore. And a paper in the Boston College Journal of Law & Social Justice recounts a harrowing tale of preaching, lying, humiliation, violation, and finally weeks-long harassment of a young North Dakota woman who visited a fake clinic for the ultrasound her state had burdened her with obtaining before getting the abortion she needed.

Fake clinics like the CPC do their damndest to manipulate the young women who go to them thinking that they’re real clinics. Of course, it’s not their youth that causes these women to make that mistake, but rather the Pearson-recommended tactic of naming the fake clinic something very similar to the name of a nearby real clinic, and placing the fake clinic somewhere very near the real one.

A Cause of Causes.

Every bit of this deception and manipulation is done because these fake clinic operators think that the ends justify any means.

And you know why they do it all?

You know why they are happy to do it all?

You know why they’d do way worse if they only could?

You know why they don’t care how many lives they destroy?

Because they think Jesus told them to do it, which makes it all okay.

To me they are the worst kind of evil, these monsters who work their damage with a clean conscience and a Jesus Smile on their lips.

Leeloo Discovers War.

We’ll be talking soon about their reasoning, but I’ll just end with this. Long ago–a lifetime ago, really, now–when I finished reading the last page of that Pearson manual I’d found in the tiny little apartment I shared with my TRUE CHRISTIAN™ husband, I was completely stunned. Gobsmacked. My grief worked its way through me in hot visceral jagged stormwall surges of emotion. I remember crying–not being able to stop–unable to see for the tears or even breathe for the wracking sobs choking me–for what feels now like hours.

I’d been so deceived. I’d been had. I’d been tricked. I’d been lied to.

I’d believed everything my tribe had ever told me about abortion. I’d listened in awe to our college’s anti-abortion crusader, a young female student who had a toddler that she said was the product of rape, one she’d raised with love and now thought justified her decision to try to remove that choice from all other women. I’d written poems and essays about abortion and “choosing life.” I’d gotten into–and largely lost–countless arguments with my fellow students about abortion, though I never let those losses stop me. I’d prayed for Jesus to end legal abortion. Until reading that manual, I’d been a believer, y’all.

And there is nobody as crushed as a true believer when their holy cause turns out to be false.

But then a truth, crystal-clear, hit me like a gong being struck:

I realized that nothing good or true needs lies to prop itself up.

My allegiance to that crusade fell away from me like a burial-shroud. In a weird kind of way, I’m grateful to Robert Pearson for making it as easy as he did for me to escape.

In the days to come, you’re going to see exactly what devastated me so much, and why.


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