The author outside a Crisis Pregnancy Center (portrait by Laura Lewis)
If a British woman smashes “HELP I’M PREGNANT” into her search engine in a panic, she's probably hoping to find a place where she can get impartial advice from a health professional who will take her through her options in a manner that is bullshit-free. For those who feel like they're not ready to be a parent in the UK, abortion clinics are a safe and legal option, monitored by the Care Quality Commission, which oversees them and makes sure they don't try to unduly sway that lady's decision.
Nevertheless, her frenzied searching may lead her to something called a Crisis Pregnancy Center (or CPC), which is not quite the same thing. They call themselves "counseling" centers, and the National Health Services Choices website provides links to many of them, implying some kind of endorsement. Yet they are unregulated and run by Christian charities, and their advice has more to do with a moralistic view of the evils of abortion than with helping women make an informed decision. I decided to go undercover and pretend to be pregnant at some CPCs to help Education for Choice compile a report, which was released last month.
As I walked up to a CPC in Chelmsford, I took a few deep breaths and remembered my cover—My name is Jess, and I am pregnant. I pretended to be a professional Essex woman in a nice relationship who had accidentally become pregnant. So I came to the CPC for advice and to discuss my options. I called and was put in contact with my "counselor," Jean. We met at 2PM at Chelmsford's Lighthouse Center. A quick look at the center's [website](http://www.lighthouseft.org.uk/ index.php) told me that it offers “one to one, confidential, non-directional, non-judgemental counseling” surrounding “pregnancy crisis.” It claims that all of its counselors are “trained.” The website also states that the center is associated with the organization Care Confidential. Yet Care Confidential claims to have disaffiliated from all CPCs of this type.
Jean sat me down in a cozy room. She was middle-aged and motherly. We chatted about my situation. Because I was there to assess what "advice" is given at these centers, I tried my best to not ask any leading questions and to let the conversation flow naturally. It turned out that no leading questions were required for Jean to start pressuring me out of an abortion with a mixture of lies and heavy morality.
I was used to this. In 2011, while "mystery-shopping" a CPC, I was shown baby clothes and warned that having an abortion would cause my parents to lose a grandchild, make Christmas and family situations “difficult," and give me shocking grief. I was shown fetus pictures and given literature detailing “corpses” being removed from women's bodies. A few months ago, at another center, I was told in no uncertain terms that adoption really was “giving a gift” by a counselor who very much wanted me to dismiss the idea of a termination and instead have my unborn baby adopted. The same counselor told me lots of women started drinking a lot more alcohol after having terminations. She claimed that some took on a “personality change” and began having panic attacks, which might not happen to me… but, well, it also just might.
Jean told me from the outset I had three options: "Keep the baby, and be a parent. You have a termination. Which obviously has consequences. Or you take the brave option… for adoption.” Then Jean threw me a curveball. She told me that abortion had "been linked to crime." Education for Choice has had reports of mystery shoppers being told they will contract breast cancer, but this was new territory. She waxed lyrical about how the grief, anger, and trauma of abortions have often led to women acting on those emotions and committing criminal acts. “The anger, it gets so bad that it can lead to crime… It's definitely, definitely linked.”
There was a lot of loaded language being thrown about—“guilt” and “shame” were two words that came up a lot. There were stories about post-abortion women who found out later that “they can't become pregnant” and saw this predicament as a “punishment.” “They blame the termination… so it's something that always seems to be at the back of their mind,” Jean said. At one point, she even recalled a bereavement in her own family and likened the grief of abortion to the loss of her dead sister. “A year back, my sister died. My only sister. She had been ill. I was fine at first. But about a year ago, I was looking at birthday cards and saw one that said ‘to sister,’ and it suddenly kicked in that I don't have one any more. And this is the way the trigger hits.” As sad as the anecdote is, the link to getting an abortion feels pretty tenuous.
She asked me about my family situation, and, predictably, the line I'd heard previously about my parents and the "loss" of their grandchildren resurfaced. "Because that's the other thing, you know… It's your baby, but it's their grandchild." I noticed Jean had already started calling my pregnancy a “baby.” I was also shown a leaflet titled “The Journey.” It had a diagram representing a “road to post-abortion recovery.” The arrows on the diagram plunged down into a dark pit of “Anger and Depression,” “Grief,” “Guilt and Shame.” There was no subtlety. Abortion was really being earmarked as a last-resort option, with many dire consequences. I thanked Jean for the leaflet and folded it away into my bag.
As we came to the end of our session, Jean had some practical advice for me. She recommended a local doctor in Chelmsford whom I should consult as soon as possible. I took a quick look at the GP surgery’s [website](http:// http://www.beauchamphouse.co.uk/ ) and noticed that it had a line from Corinthians splashed across the opening page: “For we are partners working together for God.” I wonder what their view on abortion is. Upon a deeper dive into the Lighthouse Family Trust's website, I also unearthed another breast-cancer clanger under a description of abortion risks, stating that “some studies show a higher susceptibility to breast cancer.” CPCs just can't seem to get enough of the supposed link between breast cancer and abortion—even though the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG) has debunked it.
The report from Education for Choice details more bullshit advice given at CPCs. At Reading Lifeline, a mystery shopper was told, “I do believe that God gives the gift of a baby.” At the Central London Women’s Center, this pearl of wisdom was offered: “There’s more risk of infertility from termination than there is from giving birth. Some reports will say there's as low as 1 percent chance of infertility from termination, and some will say as high as 25 percent.” Again, RCOG says that in fact the risk is “very, very low.” And the Oxford Care Center peddled the breast cancer myth once more.
These centers are everywhere. Some of them are in hospitals and GP surgeries. The anti-abortion, pro-abstinence group called Life is on the government’s Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV, while Care Confidential, which until very recently ran the center I visited, has the Information Standard quality mark, a scheme commissioned by NHS England “demonstrating their commitment to trustworthy health and care information as well as providing assurances of the quality of their internal processes.”
I contacted the centers mentioned to see what they had to say about the Education for Choice report. Reading Lifeline said that the quote about a baby's being a gift is "concerning and does show a disappointing absence of impartiality. Whatever the context, Reading Lifeline’s intent is not to manipulate or enforce religious views on any service user… As such, the volunteer counselor responsible for this comment has been removed from all pregnancy crisis counseling." The Central London Women's Center was less apologetic. Its spokesperson pointed me in the direction of a study suggesting that having an abortion will make you 60 percent more likely to miscarry, even though the RCOG guidelines say that "women should be informed that there are no proven associations between induced abortion and subsequent ectopic pregnancy, placenta praevia, or infertility." The spokesperson said, "We continue to support hundreds of women who have chosen life for their children, as well as others who have had an abortion and who have suffered as a result of it." So not a whole lot of impartiality there. When I called the Oxford Care Center, they pointed me to their parent charity, Life. And then Life didn't get back to me with an answer for any of my questions.
The Chelmsford CPC—where I was told that there was a link between abortion and crime—didn't reply to my email asking for evidence of this, so I got in touch with Care Confidential, with which the CPC claims an affiliation on its website. Yet Care Confidential said that they had broken up with the center. "The centers that are mentioned in the Brook report are independently run and are no longer affiliated to Care Confidential, following the recent disaffiliation of all centers," they said. "The advice that was attributed to the centers mentioned is not endorsed by Care Confidential and is not supported by the BACP [British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy] ethical framework that we adhere to. Care Confidential have supported the centers with the provision of training, the website, and three Information Standard certified leaflets. Centers should not refer to themselves as Care Confidential Centers."
Personally, I’m pro-choice. And by pro-choice, I mean exactly that. Women have choices. And all of them are fine by me. In 2007 I had an abortion. I was 25, unsure of myself, and in no way financially or emotionally stable enough to even consider having a baby. I decided, along with my partner, that the best option was to have a termination. I've neither looked back nor regretted it since. Have I committed crimes as a result? Nope. Have I contracted breast cancer? Nuh-uh. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges [says](http://However, the rates of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy are the same, whether they have an abortion or give birth.) that "the rates of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy are the same, whether they have an abortion or give birth." As far as my experience goes, have I found Christmas, being around children, birthdays, or anniversaries difficult? Not in the slightest.
I had a positive abortion experience, so I can see through the bogus advice I was given on my undercover mission. But what about everyone else? I'll gladly keep mystery shopping until I'm too old to fake being pregnant any more, or until this kind of thing is stopped for good. It's sad to think it's probably going to be the former that happens first.
Names have been changed.