A new bill will legitimize "crisis pregnancy centers" that critics say trick women into getting lectured about the evils of abortions.
An anti-abortion truck in Florida in 2003. Photo by Matt Stroshane/Getty
“FREE PREGNANCY TESTS.” It was 2010, and the flyers hanging on the doors of women’s restroom stalls at the University of Florida caught the eye of Jennifer Rodrigues, who was then a 19-year-old sophomore facing a pregnancy scare. She ripped the flyer off the stall and, with her boyfriend, walked a couple blocks from campus to the Gainesville address on the sheet.
At the facility, called A Woman’s Answer Medical Center, Rodrigues was greeted with a smile and given a free pregnancy test as promised. After taking it, she waited nervously for 15 minutes before a woman came back into her exam room. Instead of giving her the results, however, she brought a thick binder filled with fact sheets and photographs and proceeded to highlight the services that the center could provide for Rodrigues, like putting her baby up for adoption. She was warned about the risks of abortion, both medical and biblical. At this point, Rodrigues still didn’t know whether or not she was pregnant.
This was followed by what she describes today as an invasion of her privacy. With her boyfriend in the room, she was probed about her religion, her sex life, and her attitudes toward marriage and childrearing—matters she wasn’t yet ready to discuss with her boyfriend, let alone a stranger. The correct answers to the questions were often made clear in the way they were asked, she said: “You don’t believe in abortion, do you?”
“I didn’t feel comfortable at all,” Rodrigues told me, “but I said what she wanted to hear, so I could just get out of there.”
Once the questioning had ended, the woman left the room and returned with the test results. Rodrigues wasn’t pregnant.
“As much as I appreciate the sweet voice and the tissue boxes, I would’ve preferred having scientific information and clinical services,” Rodrigues said.
It wasn’t until years later that Rodrigues realized the clinic she visited was not really a clinic at all. A Woman’s Answer Medical Center is what is known as a crisis pregnancy center, or CPC, the term for facilities that often appear to offer comprehensive care options for women when in reality they are outposts of the pro-life movement where staff and volunteers try to talk women out of having abortions.
CPCs are often placed next to abortion clinics and use similar names in an effort to attract women who mix them up. Pro-choice advocates accuse CPCs of providing women with biased counseling about abortion. According to a 2017 report from pro-choice organization NARAL, “While some CPCs may provide appropriate support and information to women facing unintended pregnancies,” many inundate them with anti-abortion materials and may refuse to refer them to an abortion provider, or even provide information about birth control. According to a recent NARAL count, Florida is home to 147 CPCs and just 41 abortion clinics.
Despite the controversy surrounding CPCs, the Florida legislature has been working to provide them with support. In late 2017, lawmakers introduced the Florida Pregnancy Support and Wellness Services Bill, which would require the Department of Health to contract with the Florida Pregnancy Care Network, a nonprofit that runs 105 CPCs throughout the state, including A Woman’s Answer. The bill has been passed by the state House and Senate as of Thursday, and Republican governor Rick Scott is likely to sign the bill into law by March; the contracts are slated to take effect July 1.
“This is yet another opportunity for Scott to put up even more barriers to women trying to access adequate healthcare,” said Amy Weintraub, who serves as the chairwoman of the Reproductive Health and Justice Action Team for the League of Women Voters of Florida.
Under the legislation, every CPC in the Florida Pregnancy Care Network would become a subcontractor under the auspices of the Department of Health. As of yet, there is no indication as to how much of the state’s budget would be allocated to the network. The bill also stipulates that the CPCs provide accurate information in a “non-coercive manner” and be free of any faith-based content. But it also limits subcontractors to “exclusively those who promote childbirth,” meaning none of these CPCs can provide comprehensive reproductive health services, like contraceptives or abortion. Pro-choice activists argue that this legislation will legitimize all CPCs, not just the ones in the network.
“For years, legislators have found ways to include some funding for CPCs as a line item in the state budget,” Weintraub said, “but this bill establishes them as legitimate wellness centers.” (State Senator Aaron Bean, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, did not return requests for comment.)
In the past, pro-life politicians have devised creative ways for taxpayer dollars to fund CPCs. For instance, Florida is among 32 states that have “Choose Life” license-plate programs, which allow drivers to purchase a pro-life license plate. Proceeds from the fees are given to Choose Life Inc., an organization funding pro-life pregnancy centers. (These programs have been challenged in court but have been upheld.)
The Florida Pregnancy Care Network did not respond to requests for comment, but I called A Woman’s Answer and spoke to an employee named Shirley, who declined to give her last name. I asked if she provided women with information about the risks and benefits of abortion, and she replied she “couldn’t even make up any benefits of getting an abortion” if she wanted to (which she wouldn’t), but she is always “sure to advise them about how dangerous it can be.”
Some CPCs can be found in Florida’s rural areas, where comprehensive women’s health centers are few and far between. Most, however, are strategically placed in the state’s urban communities, identified by pro-life groups as being “over-aborted” areas.
“These are black and brown communities,” explained Charo Valero, the Florida state policy director at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Valero said that the CPCs in Florida’s urban areas, most of which are part of are usually across the street or even right next door to licensed abortion clinics. While the obscure messaging of a CPC can be confusing for any woman, Chalero pointed out that it can be particularly misleading for Latina women with language barriers and limited medical literacy.
“The Latinx community is an easy target for these exploitative CPCs,” Valero said, adding that Latina women are already three times less likely than white men and women to have access to healthcare.
As for Rodrigues, she now has a master’s in public health and works in the medical field. She told me that she this bill and the facilities it contracts are risks to women, mothers, and children. “These facilities may have a place in our communities,” she said, “but they cannot parade as legitimate healthcare providers because that’s not what they are.”
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Ludwig Hurtado is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.