Some of the same states that have issued orders to ban abortion during the coronavirus pandemic are allowing anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” to remain open.
A VICE News review found these types of facilities, which usually aim to convince women to continue their pregnancies, remain open in states like Texas, Ohio, and Alabama. In each of those states, public officials have ordered non-essential businesses to close and non-essential medical procedures to be canceled due to the coronavirus. And in officials’ views, abortion is one of those non-essential medical procedures that must be postponed, except in the case of medical emergencies.
While Planned Parenthood and other reproductive rights advocates have secured temporary restraining orders that will let Ohio and Alabama clinics offer abortions, the procedure is now effectively banned in Texas. Texans will have to drive an average of 243 miles, each way, to get a legal abortion, according to a study released Thursday by the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion restrictions.
But as women scramble to end their pregnancies in the middle of a pandemic that’s now claimed more than 9,600 lives in the United States, some champions of anti-abortion centers say their work is too important to stop. Typically, these centers offer services like pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and supplies for caring for a baby. They do not refer or perform abortions; some refuse to offer hormonal birth control. Many are faith-based.
Heartbeat International and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), which are affiliated with vast networks of thousands of anti-abortion centers, both sent emails to supporters last week celebrating the fact that pregnancy centers have kept working during the coronavirus pandemic.
“While businesses and organizations are being told to shut down pregnancy centers are finding new ways to serve and connect with their communities,” Thomas Glessner, NIFLA’s president, wrote in an email to supporters obtained by VICE News. “The health resources provided by these dedicated life-affirming ministries are absolutely essential. Pregnancy centers are staying open and saving lives.”
As long as abortion clinics remain open, Glesser added, these centers must try to “counter” them. “As one executive of a center said to me, ‘abortion is deadlier than the coronavirus,’” he said.
The email includes a testimonial from a center staffer in Pennsylvania, thanking NIFLA for hosting a webinar that helped keep the center, previously ready to close, open. NIFLA declined to comment on Glessner’s email, and directed VICE News to a statement about how NIFLA is advising centers on how to keep operating safely and encouraging them to follow federal and CDC guidelines.
In a video posted online Wednesday, Heartbeat International Vice President Cindi Boston said that Heartbeat International typically receives more than 1,000 calls, texts, and chats through its “Options Line,” which provides consultations about unwanted pregnancies and helps connect women with local organizations that oppose abortion. But on one recent day, the line saw a 50% increase in calls.
“Those are incredible numbers,” Boston said in the video. “That means women are isolated, they’re feeling more alone than ever, but we have the ability to rescue them.”
Heartbeat International didn’t reply to VICE News interview requests.
On their websites, some open anti-abortion centers say that they are changing up their services in response to the coronavirus, through adjusting hours and services, or eliminating walk-in appointments, among other tactics. One organization, Agape Pregnancy Resource Center outside Austin, Texas, plans to leave pregnancy tests “in a bag on a table outside Agape’s backdoor to do the test at home,” according to guidelines posted online in late March.
But per the guidelines, some clients are able to receive care inside the center, as long as they’ve been pre-screened for COVID-19 symptoms and are seeking what Agape refers to as “essential medical services (i.e. services necessary to make an informed decision about pregnancy).”
A disclaimer on Agape’s website, however, cautions that its “information is provided as an educational service and should not be relied on as a substitute for professional and/or medical advice.” Agape Pregnancy Resource Center, which also doesn’t provide birth control, didn’t immediately return VICE News requests for comment.
Houston Pregnancy Help Center, an anti-abortion organization that runs three locations in Houston, Texas, declares on its website that it “will remain open amid the pandemic as a life-affirming place where women can find resources and truth regarding their pregnancies.” A video about the plan to stay open features a girl identified as “16-year-old Denae,” and how Denae “chose life for her baby” after seeing an ultrasound, talking to a nurse, and receiving prenatal vitamins.
On Friday the group’s CEO, Sylvia Johnson-Matthews, said the center would likely provide about 30 women and girls that day with free, essential items that they need to care for their pregnancies and babies.
She kept a call with VICE News short. “I don’t want to get in a media battle with people who don’t really come into my community, serve people in my community,” Johnson-Matthews said.
In an email, NARAL Pro-Choice America spokesperson Amanda Thayer condemned the anti-abortion centers.
“Anti-choice organizations are and have always been consumed with ending legal abortion by any means necessary, and that they're exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to push their unpopular agenda illustrates there is no low they will not sink to,” Thayer said. “Amid a global pandemic, they are actively pushing disinformation and bucking science to suggest that abortion is not essential or time-sensitive care.”
As the coronavirus sweeps across the United States, abortion clinics have been threatened by more than just officials’ attempts to close them down. Forced to cut or postpone services, independent providers — who perform the majority of American abortions — are facing financial devastation. Clinics that rely on doctors who travel to provide abortions have struggled to bring them in safely.
Several anti-abortion centers contacted by VICE News had also been shuttered by the coronavirus. Alissa Johnson, interim executive director of Gateway Express Testing in Yukon, Oklahoma, said that she was forced to close after her volunteers, many of whom are over 65 and therefore more vulnerable to the virus, were unable to come in.
“If I just had one other person we could see clients,” Johnson said. Instead, her center is set to be closed through the end of April.
“I’ve had to actually turn quite a few people away,” Johnson added. ”It makes me sad that we’re not able to help, be out there helping people in this time.”
Cover: A Google Maps screenshot of Agape Pregnancy Resource Center in Round Rock, Texas.