The Pseudoscience of the Crisis Pregnancy Center

I was recently gifted with a full digital copy of a volunteer manual created by a Crisis Pregnancy Center (CPC), thanks to the kindness of a longtime reader we’re calling “Sender.” We’ve been slowly working our way through it for a little while now. Today we’ll take up with the next section of the manual, which is a catch-all of pseudoscience that they feel supports their main strategy in fighting abortion rights. This section is a stunning demonstration of that strategy–as well as a disheartening look at the outdated and misapplied information that informs this perennial Christian culture war.

(Carole Raddato, CC-SA.) Part of the Amazonomachy frieze of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

The Strategy.

The people involved with the CPC, like most culture-warriors fighting abortion rights, do not understand the concept of consent, nor consent’s correct function as the real moral center of abortion rights. It’s almost better that way. I’ve run into forced-birthers who do vaguely understand that point; if anything, they’re just extra-monstrous.

Instead of tackling consent, then, most anti-abortion crusaders instead focus on two main points:

  • Abortion is (goes the claim) scary and gross and super-risky, and
  • From the moment of implantation, embryos are (they think) exactly like little babies and you don’t wanna hurt a pweshus widdle baaaaaaaybeeeeee… do you? I thought not.

That, literally, is how an anti-abortion culture war is waged. Women are terrorized into thinking that abortion is much scarier and much riskier than it actually is, and they are guilted and shamed for wanting to harm a baby. There are other details involved–for example, nebulous (and false) offers of potential financial and emotional support for women who are on the fence about completing a pregnancy–but in general, there you go.

The beauty of this strategy is that it sells to both Christians and non-Christians. It’s easy to understand and easy to support with pseudoscience. Liberal dustings of logical fallacies and emotional manipulation can then cover up any cracks left over, but we’re kinda getting ahead of ourselves there.

In this post, we’re mostly working with the second prong in the anti-abortion crusade’s strategy. The first will come into view soon enough, don’t worry.

A Timeline, Sort Of.

Timeline 1. Click to embiggen.

So this is the first page of the next section. It’s a timeline–sort of. I saw a very similar timeline in the CPC manual I got my hands on in the early 1990s. It is provided here for volunteers to memorize, and it is used in the most manipulative and nefarious ways imaginable: volunteers pelt the women seeking their help with information about what their developing fetuses look like.1

Bear in mind, as we travel through this timeline, the overarching strategy I’ve outlined. First and foremost, the CPC’s job is to make that developing fetus sound as human-like as possible, so that the idea of aborting it sounds grotesque and disgusting; secondly, they want to shame women for daring to imagine committing such a dreadful crime.

For reference, plenty of reputable pregnancy timelines exist online. Here’s one that seems well-written and easy-to-understand–and which lacks the overt culture-war focus of the one in the CPC manual, which is probably why nothing like it made it into the timeline there. Here’s another from Wikipedia that goes into some more detail. It’s not hard to find this stuff.

Points of Contention.

Taking the timeline in Sender’s manual (“Timeline 1,” reproduced above), we see that the CPC begins to work on its agenda immediately.

In their chronology, we see this statement as their first point: “Before implantation, the sex of the new life can be determined.”

Yes, that would be because biological sex is largely-but-not-exclusively determined by DNA–which exists in the cells of sperm and eggs, which join at fertilization. That’s the earliest that we can tell what that particular egg and sperm’s combination of DNA has actually become. And this process isn’t magical. Every single species that has genders does the exact same thing, but we’re expected to be shocked and amazed here–and to think it’s some uniquely human thing.

The fertilized egg begins to travel to the uterus over the next week, where it will implant around Day 7 after fertilization–which makes fertilization the zero marker for fetal-development timelines, rather than “last day of the menstrual cycle.” What these guys at the CPC are doing is using gestational age as their starting point rather than fetal or embryonic age, which is going to muddy their timeline–but this editorial decision does fit well with the suspicion that they are focusing on gestation rather than fetal development in order to emotionally manipulate the women who make the dire mistake of entering their fake clinics. Just bear in mind that if the dates don’t seem to match up, that’s probably why.

The human egg is .1mm in diameter, about the same width as one strand of human hair, and it won’t change markedly in size as it moves along to its implantation site.

Next up we have this second point: “At implantation, the new life is composed of hundreds of cells and has developed a protective hormone to prevent the mother’s body from rejecting it as a foreign tissue.”

The second item here is not specified as having an exact timeframe–it just happens between “date of last menstrual period” and “2 weeks.”

In reality, yes, cells are dividing like mad in the newly-fertilized egg. Each division takes 12-24 hours, so in the week it’s traveling to its implantation site it’s going to go through a few of these divisions. And gang, this is some damned fascinating stuff. Layers of cells will form and then disintegrate while rudimentary formations will start to take shape–the yolk sac, the placenta itself. It’s real blueprint-of-life stuff and it’s cool to think that every human who gets born has gone through this process.

But there’s a lot of stuff that can go hideously wrong with that process. The fallopian tubes through which eggs travel may be defective, impairing transport. Fertilized eggs might accidentally implant in the tube instead of the uterus (creating an ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening situation). Or something may go wrong with the cell division or the travel of the blastocyst (that’s the term for a fertilized egg that hasn’t yet implanted), causing it not to implant at all. Implantation doesn’t even guarantee that the blastocyst is going to make it, obviously; it may not grow at all after implanting, or it might start growing and then stop.

One way or the other, about half of all fertilized eggs are lost before the woman even knows she was pregnant–making the Christian god the world’s most prolific abortionist.

As for the hormone mentioned, it’s actually a whole bunch of stuff happening “at every level,” said one team of researchers who looked at exactly that mechanism a few years ago. Cells called chemokines trigger a human being’s immune response by secreting chemicals that draw T-cells (which fight infections) to a foreign body. But the uterine lining inhibits the part of those cells that would normally secrete those T-cell-attracting chemicals, thus ensuring that around the fetus itself there’s this area where T-cells don’t get called like they normally would–and also ensures that the developing fetus gets oxygen, food, and waste management.

That process is not special or magical, and things can go wrong with that protective mechanism too. (Some folks think that Anne Boleyn might have been Rh- while Henry VIII was Rh+, which would explain why she had the one successful pregnancy and then miscarried a couple of times.) But none of that information would help the CPC, which is trying to make the point here that all pregnant women’s bodies are doing every which possible thing that they possibly can to protect the fetus growing within them (with an implied shaming finger wagging in the direction of women who’d violate that biological mandate by aborting).

Without a lot of safeguards evolved over life’s long run on Planet Earth, a woman’s body would be fighting the development of her own children every step of the way. That’s quite true. But the amount of things that can and do go wrong with this early part of pregnancy tells us that just as with everything else in life, nothing is ever as simple as extremists would have us believe.

TOTALLY Not Part of Anybody Else’s Body.

The violent fetus, the unwilling chimerical mother, the irrevocable enmity of blood meeting blood—birth is a fucking space opera inside the human body.

Elise, End of Shift Report, December 2015

We’re told next that “at 17 days, the new life has developed its own blood cells; the placenta is part of the new life and not of the mother.”

Yes, because fetuses are totally viable at 17 days.

Oh wait.

This is a tactic at least as old as the 1990s, when I spotted it in the CPC manual I read. It was common back then too, and it bugged me even at the time. I get that they’re trying to make fetuses sound totally like burbling little babies in pretty little frocks and flowered headbands, but this attempt sounds quite grotesque to me–and did even when I was a fundagelical lass. Now I see that they do it because they’re trying to make fetuses sound like completely independent human beings out of a misguided effort to make them sound like real live people with the kind of real live rights that we give only to human beings after birth. If fetuses differ from human beings who have been born, then (their rulebook goes) they cannot be “killed,” which is how they mistakenly view abortion–in the same way that someone cannot murder a homeless guy who is squatting in their house (an argument I’ve personally gotten from these crusaders).

The analogy is flawed beyond all hope of redemption. It doesn’t particularly matter how well-developed or human-like the source of any demand upon another human being’s body. Consent means we can refuse any such demand upon our bodies regardless of the consequences for the source of the demand. The homeless guy is not squatting in our houses; he is instead trying to hook himself up to our bodies like a human dialysis machine–or seeking the donation of our organs and blood–or even threatening our lives and health, thus forcing us to “stand our ground.” Some people will accept such a demand, as unexpected and as hazardous as it can be; others will refuse it. And it is their perfect right to make either decision, for any reason at all.

Ultimately I understand why the CPC tries to make this bizarre assertion about the “separate” nature of a fetus, but it fails even on that level because the fetus is no more separate or independent than, say, a person’s liver is. Removing it will, of necessity, immediately end the fetus’ development precisely because it is not an independent life.

If They Only Had a Heart.

From days 17-43, the CPC is trying hard to push that narrative of theirs that fetuses look just like little tiny babies.

They lavish descriptions about when they think hearts, limbs, ears, and skeletons form. Again, it’s just part of their strategy to humanize fetuses as much as humanly possible to emotionally manipulate women by making them feel protective. People want to protect babies and young children; one might well argue that this urge may be part of our evolutionary adaptations as humans.

Hearts, in particular, are a big point in the CPC’s crusade. Humans like to think of our hearts as emotional vessels, not just physical organs. “Having a heart” is part of being a good person. And a heartbeat is, obviously, essential for life.

In the forced-birther crusade, hearts become a rallying point–a way to make a fetus sound considerably more like a real live born baby than it actually is, and to spur politicians to create laws that actually make women’s lives harder and pregnancy more hazardous for them.

But in reality, fetuses look like anything but babies. Here’s a fetus at Carnegie Stage 17, which is about 42-44 days after fertilization, when the CPC thinks a fetus is literally “a thinking person:”

Aww, look, y’all, he’s got his daddy’s eyes. (Hill, M.A. 2018 Embryology Carnegie stage 17. Retrieved February 2, 2018, from here.) This is still considered an embryo, and it’s about 1/2″ long.

This was also probably the friendliest image on the site. There are others, and I encourage you (if you can) to head to the source to get a good look at what the CPC is trying to pretend is a totally for-realsies human baby, just smaller and maybe not wearing frocks and floral headbands.

That same desire to baby-ize fetuses forms the source of the humor in the following meme that’s been floating around lately:

I’m not going to go through the whole CPC timeline shebang; I think I’ve adequately demonstrated that this timeline is quite simplistic–and at times misleading or even flat-out wrong. But then, it’s not here to really educate anybody, but to provide volunteers with ammunition. Indeed, the further along the timeline goes, the more baby-like the descriptions get–including, at one point, describing how a fetus at the 9th and 10th week of gestation “squints, swallows, retracts tongue.”

It’s like they think this stuff matters.

In One Ear, Out the Other.

Even when I was myself a Christian who was deeply invested in the anti-abortion culture war, I noticed that same manipulativeness very quickly. It bothered me, but I didn’t know what to do with my discomfort. I remember thinking to myself that it didn’t matter how developed a fetus was if aborting it was wrong no matter what.

Indeed, when we try to push back regarding “fetal pain” and “fetal heartbeats,” it’s like we never said a word–the culture war goes on despite the people responsible for it hearing the refutations of their cherished positions. Even now, I see that both of these terms show up prominently on anti-abortion sites–taken as point of fact and beyond by those who claim that their position is based on cutting-edge medical science. Like we see in all pseudoscience, once an alternative fact enters the anti-abortion lexiconit stays there forever no matter what. There are no take-backsies with pseudoscience, ever.

A few swipes at the pro-choice position appear near the end of the timeline as well: “There are those who claim the mother’s right over her body gives the right of abortion.”

Yes, there sure are. And they are quite correct on that point.

This very tentative swipe at consent is the only one I’ve seen so far in the manual, though they’ll be developing the idea in fits and spurts over the document. But it appears here only to increase the so-called ick factor–to raise levels of disgust and protectiveness.

In reality, it doesn’t matter how human or baby-like a fetus is. The only thing that does matter is a person’s right to say if another person or thing or group or ideal has the right to invade their body and use it for their benefit. (We’ll be talking in more detail later on about this idea so I’m just setting it here for now.)

The LOL Moment.

At the bottom of the page, the CPC has printed this memo in all caps:

A FETUS OF 10 WEEKS IS NOT ESSENTIALLY DIFFERENT FROM ONE OF 20 WEEKS OR ONE OF 30 WEEKS.

And like its other misleading statements, this one’s also possessed of a germ of truth. By the time an embryo is technically called a fetus, all the parts are there. The organs are essentially in place. It just needs to refine those organs and fully develop those structures.

That doesn’t mean that a fetus is a baby.

It’s still a fetus, so it still depends, 100%, upon its host mother to provide it the chemical and mineral building blocks of its body, the food it needs to consume, the hemoglobin she oxygenates for them, and the disposal system that carts out all the by-products of all that construction work. It’s not being carried in a shopping bag for nine months, totally independent of its mother.

And fetal development, as popular as it is as a means of attempting to restrict abortion rights for women, is quite possibly the biggest red herring there is. It doesn’t matter how person-like a fetus is or isn’t, how old or how young, how big or how small, because the only thing that matters is whether or not the woman growing that fetus consents to it being there.

NEXT UP: We’ll be looking at the human tendency to create and use shortcuts, and next on the CPC manual series we’ve got a few pages about what the CPC thinks abortions are totally like. See you then!


1 I’m going to be using the term fetus here to denote any stage of fetal development, though obviously there are a number of technical terms for it: zygote, embryo, fetus, etc. Some people use the term Z/E/F or the like to indicate that there are technical terms beyond just fetus, and that’s okay; I just want to keep this simple here.


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