The author outside a Crisis Pregnancy Centre (portrait by Laura Lewis)
If you smash "HELP I'M PREGNANT" into your search engine in a panic, you're probably hoping that you'll come across somewhere you can go to get some impartial advice from a health professional, who will take you through your options in a manner that is totally non-judgemental and bullshit-free. For those who feel like they're not ready to be a parent, 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 sway your decision unduly.
However, in your frenzied searching, you may come across something called a Crisis Pregnancy Centre (or CPC), which is not quite the same thing. They call themselves "counselling" centres, and many of them are linked to from the NHS Choices website, implying some kind of endorsement. However, they are unregulated, many are run by Christian charities and their advice has more to do with a moralistic view of the evils of abortion than helping you make an informed decision. I've gone undercover pretending to be pregnant in CPCs to help Education For Choice compile a report, which was released last month. I found that some were even willing to give me bogus "advice" about how getting an abortion would turn me into an infertile, alcoholic, cancer-suffering kleptomaniac.
As I walk up to a CPC in Chelmsford, I take a few deep breaths and remember my cover – today, I'm Jess and I'm pregnant. I'm pretending I live locally in Essex, I have a job, a nice relationship and that I've accidentally gotten pregnant. I've come to seek advice and discuss my options. I called last week and was put in contact with my "counsellor", Jean. We meet at 2PM at Chelmsford's Lighthouse Centre. A quick look at their [website](http://www.lighthouseft.org.uk/ index.php) tells me that they offer, "one to one, confidential, non-directional, non-judgemental counselling" surrounding "pregnancy crisis". They claim all their counsellors are "trained". The website also says that they are associated with the organisation Care Confidential, but Care Confidential say that they have now disaffiliated from all CPCs of this type.
Jean sits me down in a cosy room. She's middle-aged and motherly. We chat about my situation. I'm here to assess what "advice" is given in these centres, so I try my best not to ask any leading questions and let the conversation flow naturally. It turns out that no leading questions are required for Jean to pressure me out of an abortion with a mixture of lies and heavy morality.
I'm used to this. In 2011 I was shown baby clothes when "mystery shopping" a CPC and warned that "killing" a "child" could cause me shocking grief, that my parents would lose a grandchild, that I'd find Christmas and family situations "difficult" if I were to have an abortion. I have been given literature telling of "corpses" being removed from women's bodies; shown foetus pictures. A few months ago at another centre I was told in no uncertain terms that adoption really was "giving a gift" by a counsellor who very much wanted me to dismiss the idea of a termination, and, instead, have my unborn baby adopted. The same counsellor told me lots of women started drinking a lot more alcohol after having terminations, that some took on a "personality change" and began having panic attacks. That, you know, it might not happen to me, but, well, it also just might.
Jean tells me from the outset I have 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." Nothing new so far, but then Jean throws me a curveball. She tells me, in no uncertain terms, that abortion has "been linked to crime". This is a new one. Education for Choice have had reports of mystery shoppers being told they will contract breast cancer, but this is new territory. She waxes lyrical about the grief, anger and trauma of abortions having often led to women acting on those emotions and committing crime; "the anger it gets so bad that it can lead to crime… it's definitely, definitely linked".
There's a lot of loaded language being thrown about – "guilt" and "shame" are two words that come up a lot. There are stories about post-abortion women finding out later that "they can't become pregnant" and seeing this predicament as a "punishment". "[They] blame the termination… so it's something that always seems to be at the back of their mind," they say. At one point, Jean even recalls a bereavement in her own family and likens 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 and I suppose I was busy with my family so I wiped it. But about a year ago I was looking at birthday cards and saw one that said 'to sister' and it suddenly kicked in – 'I haven't got one any more'. And this is the way the trigger hits." Sad though the anecdote is, the link to getting an abortion feels pretty tenuous.
She asks me about my family situation and, predictably, the line I'd heard previously about my parents and the "loss" of their grandchildren resurfaces; "Because that's the other thing, you know… it is your baby… but… it's their grandchild." I notice Jean has already started calling my pregnancy a "baby". I'm also shown a leaflet entitled, "The Journey". It's a diagram representing a "road to post-abortion recovery". The arrows on the diagram plunge down into a dark pit of "Anger and Depression", "Grief", "Guilt and Shame". There's no subtlety here; abortion is really being earmarked as a last-resort option, with many dire consequences. I thank Jean for the leaflet and fold it away into my bag.
We're coming to the end of our session, and Jean has some practical advice for me. She recommends a local doctor in Chelmsford to check in with as soon as possible. A quick look at the GP surgery's [website](http:// http://www.beauchamphouse.co.uk/ ) and I notice that it has 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 delve into the Lighthouse Family Trust's website, I also unearth another breast cancer clanger under their description of abortion risks; "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 Gynaecologists (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 that, "I do believe that God gives the gift of a baby." At the Central London Women's Centre, 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 Centre peddled the breast cancer myth once more.
These centres 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 centre 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 centres mentioned to see what they had to say about the Education for Choice report. Reading Lifeline said that the quote about a baby 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 counsellor responsible for this comment has been removed from all pregnancy crisis counselling." The Central London Women's Centre was less apologetic. Their spokesperson pointed me in the direction of a study suggesting that having an abortion will make you 60 percent more likely to miscarry, despite the fact that 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 Centre, 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, who they say they are associated with on their website. However, Care Confidential said that they had broken up with the centre. "The Centres that are mentioned in the Brook report are independently run and are no longer affiliated to Care Confidential following the recent disaffiliation of all Centres," they said. "The advice that was attributed to the Centres mentioned is not endorsed by Care Confidential and is not supported by the BACP [British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy] ethical framework that we adhere to. Care Confidential have supported the Centres with the provision of training, the website and three Information Standard certified leaflets. Centres should not refer to themselves as Care Confidential Centres."
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 eradicated for good. It's sad to think it's probably going to be the former that happens first.
Names have been changed.