Warning: This article contains extreme imagery. All images are from the literature given out at the Aid to Women crisis center.
If you're pregnant and panicking, there's a good chance your research will lead you to the website of a crisis pregnancy center. There are about 200 of them across Canada and 4,000 in the United States, and if you believe their advertising, they offer no-judgment counselling services for women who want to know what their options are. Most of the time, they won't tell you they're religious organisations hell-bent on convincing you to avoid having an abortion. They'll have innocuous-sounding names, like “Aid to Women” or “Pregnancy Care Center”, and to the untrained eye, they won't look like they're being run by nutjobs who have no problem lying to women.
When I call Aid to Women, a Toronto crisis pregnancy center, to schedule a pregnancy options consultation, I speak with Enza Rattenni, the executive director. She seems friendly enough at first, but it's not long before what should be a pretty simple phone call starts feeling like an interrogation.
None of what I tell Enza on the phone is true. I'm not six weeks pregnant, I don't have a boyfriend, and I don't need options counselling. But I've heard a ton of horror stories about crisis pregnancy centers and wanted to find out for myself.
“Where did you get our number?” she asks. My boyfriend. “What's your boyfriend's name?” I blurt out the first name that comes to mind. “Oh, OK. Where did he get our number? Just curious because it's always interesting to hear how people find out about us.” Shit. I'm a terrible liar and haven't thought this through. I mumble something about finding the center online. Luckily, Enza seems satisfied that I'm not a reporter – just a vulnerable pregnant girl in need of some advice.
She tells me if I'm only able to come in after hours, it's fine and that she knows how important it is to have these conversations. Sometimes, she tells me, girls walk out of abortion clinics and find out they've been LIED to, and she doesn't want this to happen to me. It makes me wonder how the women who mistakenly stumble into the clinic must feel when they realise they’ve wandered into the hands of an anti-abortion organisation.
Aid to Women is a pro-life organisation, Enza mentions casually, and from this I know I shouldn't expect the counselling to be unbiased. There is so much to say, she says, and sometimes, it’s just better to talk to a stranger. Her voice is comforting and full of genuine-sounding concern, and she says she'll “never shut the door” on me. Stay calm, she says, and we'll talk everything through tomorrow. I hang up. If I was actually pregnant, I'd probably trust her.
The next day, when I arrive at the clinic with a friend, Enza comes outside to meet us and pulls us both in for a tight hug. She’s younger than I thought she'd be and looks like someone I’d easily be friends with. She ushers us up a long staircase into what resembles a waiting area in a doctor's office. We go through to a counselling room, where we're both offered something to drink, and I'm given a form to fill out; anyone who comes in has to fill this in so the staff can better assist us. Along with details about my condition and relevant medical information, the form asks what my intentions are with regards to the pregnancy. I tick off “Abort”.
There are shelves filled with books on parenting in the room, and a large model of a fetus inside a womb. The form I just filled out seems comprehensive, and if I didn't know better, I'd feel like I was at a real medical facility.
Enza comes back and notices my friend looking at a collage of photos of women with their newborn children. “Aren't they so cute? Don't you just want to eat them up?” She sits down. “So, what's going on? Let's talk.”
I took a few pregnancy tests at home, and I'm six weeks along, I tell her. My boyfriend is a bit older than I am and thinks I should keep the baby – he wanted me to come in and consider all my options before making the final decision, but I've basically made up my mind about getting an abortion. I'm 22 and I can't take care of a baby. And there's no way in hell my family would be OK with this.
Enza seems to understand. Many women who come in to speak to her are in the same boat, she tells me, but there are better ways to go. She never breaks eye contact. “I know it's hard, sweetheart, but you have to be brave.”
For the next hour, I sit through a very convincing and at times horrifying lecture on the potential physical and emotional consequences of terminating my pregnancy.
“If you do this, your boyfriend WILL break up with you, I can tell you that,” she says with absolute certainty. Do I know what it'll do to him? He'll be crushed, and it'll never be the same. It's not just about me. Sure, I have goals and things I want to accomplish in my life, but isn't it selfish to take away my boyfriend's chance to be a father? And what if later on when I want to have a baby, I can't get pregnant? This happens more often than I know, she says.
After the first mention of this, Enza turns the possibility of infertility into an unavoidable reality. “When” I can't get pregnant in the future, I will regret this abortion. I may feel relief at first, but the guilt and the shame of making what I know is the wrong choice will creep up on me eventually, she says. Every woman experiences this. She's met women in their 50s and 60s who've been haunted for their entire lives by the experience of an abortion they had when they were 18. Some women hallucinate and hear their babies' voices in their heads. A lot of them grieve every time the anniversary of their abortion comes along, and this could happen every year or even every month. Some girls end up on the streets, hooked on drugs and alcohol because they're so depressed; some want to kill themselves. Enza's seen cases of this firsthand, she says.
At this point, probably because I'm the worst actress ever and I'm trying not to burst out laughing, Enza says she can see on my face that I don't think any of this will happen to me, and that I have to let go of my pride. “You're not exempt from any of this, sweetheart.”
Next, we go through the physical risks: perforation of the uterus and cervix, hemorrhage, infections, fetal body parts that are “left inside”, the increased risk of infertility. Enza explains the procedure to me with plenty of help from diagrams. But my eyes are drawn to the image of a bloody aborted fetus on the same page, which she doesn't mention.
Abortion increases the risk of breast cancer by 40 percent, she says. Medical organisations have refused to acknowledge this because abortion is a moneymaker for them. How does it increase the risk? She's not good with scientific terminology, so she'll dumb it down for me. When you're pregnant, your breasts are growing and undergoing hormonal changes so they can produce breast milk. Abortion is unnatural, and abruptly ending the pregnancy means the production of the tissue will “skip a beat”, increasing the risk of cancer.
She brings over a case with tiny models of fetuses at different stages of pregnancy. “I love these, they're so cute!” She takes out the one that resembles a fetus at six weeks. “Touch it,” she insists, and I oblige. “This is what your baby looks like.” If I was actually pregnant, this is likely where I would have felt so awful that I would be in tears.
Next we talk about the alternatives to abortion. Should I choose to parent the baby, the center can help me out with everything from diapers to paying my rent, she says. If I want, Enza can even come along when I tell my parents, if that makes things easier. Adoption is another option. I wouldn't feel the grief of an abortion, and I'd be giving the gift of life to another couple; I would “heal” faster knowing my child was in good hands.
Before I leave, Enza hands me some pamphlets summarising everything we've talked about. On the back of one, there's a photo of dead babies piled up on top of each other. “Human garbage,” says the caption. I try not to gag as I open it up to see two more similar images. “This is what is left after a developing baby of eight weeks is killed by suction abortion.”
“I can't make your choice for you, but you believe in God, and you know in your heart that abortion is the wrong choice,” Enza says, telling me I'm a beautiful girl and that she'll keep me in her prayers. “I don't know where your boyfriend got our number, but he's a good man.” Another big hug.
I walk outside and breathe a sigh of relief. I look at my friend, and we're both at a loss for words. What the fuck just happened? I’m traumatised. But how would I feel if I was actually pregnant? How would I feel if I didn't know I was being fed a bunch of misleading information? Despite all the patronising, I actually like Enza. She seems like a good person who believes in what she’s doing, and if what she was telling me wasn’t a load of complete shit, I would trust her. I’m sure many women have trusted her.
I think what’s worse than the shaming and guilt trips is the frightening, blatantly false medical counsel I've been given.
Firstly, there is no link between abortion and breast cancer. In 2003, the National Cancer Institute organised a workshop with over 100 leading experts, who reviewed existing evidence and found that that neither induced abortion nor miscarriage were associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
I was told repeatedly about different women who deeply regretted getting abortions because the procedure made it impossible for them to conceive in the future, and one of the pamphlets I received listed infertility as a possible health risk for women who receive abortions. But according to the UK's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, there are no proven associations between induced abortion and infertility.
The RCOG also says that the other risks Enza stressed, which are also listed in the pamphlet – perforation of the uterus/cervix and hemorrhage – aren't common. They only affect about 1 in 1,000 women, and that number is even lower when the abortion is performed early in the pregnancy.
While Enza didn't use the terms “post-abortion stress” or “post-abortion syndrome”, this is how crisis pregnancy centers typically categorise the mental health risks she claimed are associated with abortion, such as depression, anxiety, drug and substance abuse and suicidal thoughts, according to a Toronto Star investigation conducted in 2010. Despite all that, neither “post-abortion stress” nor “post-abortion syndrome” are recognised by the American Psychiatric Association as real mental illnesses. This is not to say there aren't any psychological side effects to abortion, but it speaks to the completely invented nature of the "science" these crisis centers preach.
In 2008, the American Psychological Association formed the Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion to examine all research on the relationship between abortion and mental health and found no evidence that having a single abortion causes mental health problems. Severe mental health complications are rare, and feelings of loss and anxiety could easily be associated with whatever led the woman to get an abortion and not the abortion itself.
The thought of a young, unsuspecting pregnant girl entering Aid to Women seeking legitimate medical advice is sad and terrifying. Defend free speech all you want, but scaring women into keeping their babies using lies and half-truths isn't OK. Telling them their boyfriends will leave them if they abort when they've declared that they intend to do so isn't ethical.
There are no plans in Canada to regulate these centers, and they're accountable to no one, running mainly on donations, according to the Star. While not all of these centers are as heavy-handed and deceptive as the one I’ve described here (I visited two) far too many continue to hide their motivations and religious affiliations, luring pregnant women under false pretenses. While my experience at the Aid to Women clinic was overwhelmingly unpleasant, I can’t imagine how I would feel if I were actually pregnant and under the impression that I was visiting a clinic that was interested in educating me about abortions.
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