Hundreds of U.S. 'Pregnancy Centers' Are Now Offering Unproven 'Abortion Reversal' Method

A new report from the top leaders of the anti-abortion movement provides a snapshot of their recent victories.
October 22, 2020, 4:50pm
A College Area Pregnancy Services (CAPS) clinic is seen Tuesday, June 26, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
A College Area Pregnancy Services (CAPS) clinic is seen Tuesday, June 26, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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Top leaders of the U.S. anti-abortion movement are congratulating their foot soliders for gaining ground in the war over abortion—just as the Senate prepares to confirm a Supreme Court justice that could help topple Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

The United States now has more than 2,700 pregnancy centers, according to a report released Tuesday by some of the nation’s leading anti-abortion organizations. These facilities, which are sometimes called “crisis pregnancy centers,” offer anti-abortion activists a physical presence in communities across the country. They do not offer or refer abortions and instead try to steer people into continuing their pregnancies. 

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“When I consider the triumphs of the pro-life movement, I think there can be no more ultimate measure of it, this side of paradise, than every resounding ‘yes’ to new life,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the powerful anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, wrote in the introduction to the report. “As a mother, as well as a convert to and leader in the pro-life cause, I am incredibly heartened by the ongoing work of pregnancy centers across our country to support women and their families in saying ‘yes’ to Life.”

(“Life” is deliberately capitalized. Dannenfelser also signed off her introduction with, “For Life.”)

A 2018 version of the report found that, in 2017, there were around 2,600 pregnancy centers in the United States. By comparison, the U.S. had just 808 abortion clinics in 2017, according to the most recent data from the Guttmacher Institute, which studies abortion restrictions.

The thousands of centers served around 1.85 million people in 2019, according to the new report, compiled by the anti-abortion think tank Charlotte Lozier Institute and the three top pregnancy center networks, Care Net, Heartbeat International, and National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA). And all of the 2,700 centers adhere to a set of standards that includes the commitment to never “offer, recommend, or refer for abortions, abortifacients, or contraceptives.” 

Eleven percent of the centers—or 305 centers—also offer the “abortion pill reversal,” a controversial treatment that purports to help people stop their medication abortions. 

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In 2019, the number of providers that offer “abortion pill reversal” increased by 30%, thanks to a mix of “clinics, private practice, hospital systems, and pregnancy centers,” the report found. More than 200 consulting pregnancy centers also “support” the practice by referring people to a hotline that counsels them about it, offering free ultrasounds, and providing what the report calls “long-term support to reversal clients.”

No conclusive medical evidence exists to prove that “abortion pill reversals” work. In 2019, a study meant to evaluate the “abortion reversal” protocol instead ended early, after three study participants started hemorrhaging so much blood they went to the ER.

The pregnancy center report shares the story of “Sarah,” a woman who underwent the abortion pill reversal protocol and ended up giving birth. However, the report says that, after Sarah took the first of the two drugs used in a medication abortion, a doctor found a heartbeat and then started her on the protocol, which typically involves giving patients several doses of the hormone progerstone. 

That account suggests that the pregnancy continued despite the first drug (which, one doctor told VICE News in 2018, isn’t a “very good abortion-causing drug” when taken on its own). It does not confirm that it was the progesterone that successfully saved the pregnancy.

Abortion rights groups say that these pregnancy centers are often less than forthcoming about the fact that they don’t offer abortions, a tactic that’s designed to lure in unsuspecting pregnant people. 

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“Behind the doors of what are designed to look like full-service health clinics, ideologically motivated staff members deceive and manipulate women with dangerous misinformation,” alleged a 2015 report from NARAL Pro-Choice America, which conducted undercover investigations into pregnancy centers in more than 10 states.

A 2019 VICE News investigation found that, when searching for places to get an abortion in states where abortion rights are under threat, Google Maps will often return results for anti-abortion pregnancy centers. These centers had labels like “pregnancy care centers” or “women’s health clinics,” which made it difficult to tell which services were actually offered by the facilities. VICE News also found that these facilities’ websites frequently don’t clarify that they don’t support abortion.

The report released Tuesday speaks highly of the “medical, education, and support services” offered by the pregnancy centers. Most performed ultrasounds, gave out goods like diapers and baby wipes, and gave what the report calls “parenting/prenatal education program[s].” Many centers, the report noted, have stayed open throughout the coronavirus pandemic as “essential services.” (In the spring, public officials in multiple states cited the pandemic as a reason to stop abortion clinics from offering the procedure.)

Just 30% of the pregnancy centers offered STI testing in 2019. About 20% offered STI treatment. And 2% offered pap smears and “well-woman exams,” where providers typically offer a kind of physical centered around reproductive health.

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“In 2019, a total of 5%, or 147 pregnancy center locations, offered some level of prenatal care beyond the provision of prenatal vitamins on-site,” the report found.

Nearly 1,000 centers offered “group sexual risk avoidance education presentations.” “Sexual risk avoidance” is a rebranding of abstinence-only sex ed. 

The vast majority of people working at pregnancy centers are also not licensed medical professionals, according to the report. Out of around 53,000 volunteers—who make up the bulk of the U.S. pregnancy center workforce—around 6,400 were licensed to practice medicine. Just under 3,800 paid staffers, out of almost 15,000, had similar licenses.

Another common service is “after-abortion recovery and support,” which 1,931 centers offered to nearly 22,000 people. While some people do have mixed or negative feelings after getting an abortion, a landmark study of abortion’s aftereffects found in 2019 that, five years after an abortion, 84% of women reported either feeling primarily positive about their abortions or having no feelings about it at all.

The vast majority of the funding for pregnancy centers comes from private donations, the report found. But 340 “pregnancy center organizations,” in the words of the report, “received government monies at some level through federal or state funding.” That’s a 2% spike from 2017.

By contrast, the Trump administration banned clinics funded by the only federal program dedicated to family planning from referring patients for abortions in 2019.