I'm in a sun-filled room just off NE Broadway, taking up a chair in a cozy house with motherly furnishings. It's a crisis pregnancy center, one of nearly 50 in the state of Oregon that pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood are putting in the crosshairs of a new statewide campaign.
SPIDER TO THE FLY
Though crisis pregnancy centers−like one of the Pregnancy Resource Centers of Greater Portland where I sat last week, sweating and looking shifty-eyed with a recorder in my pocket−reside in demure buildings behind bland exteriors, national commentators refer to them as the "new front of the abortion war." A yearlong NARAL undercover investigation in Virginia revealed many crisis pregnancy centers were pressuring women to avoid abortion and telling them, falsely, that abortion causes breast cancer and suicidal tendencies. Pro-choice advocates fear that Oregon centers are doing the same thing—advertising themselves as safe places to discuss options, but then pushing women down a specific, agenda-driven path. The centers say the national hubbub is undeserved, that promoting "choice" means allowing the Christian groups to serve women who want their help.
Oregon is one of only 14 states where access to abortion is not limited by any laws. There's none of that Puritanical parental-consent business, no waiting period, no shaming tactics like requiring women to stare at an ultrasound of their embryo before they abort it. Instead, simple geography and finances limit access to abortion in Oregon. Eighty percent of Oregon counties have no abortion provider in the phonebook, according to advocates who track access. Crisis pregnancy centers outnumber abortion providers in the state more than two to one, and reach women in rural areas and small towns where the nearest comprehensive clinic is an hour's drive away.
The Christian-backed centers advertise free pregnancy tests and offer counseling to women with accidental pregnancies (which, alarmingly, federal stats show close to half of all pregnancies are) but won't refer clients for abortions or birth control. That's all fine, as long as the centers let women in crisis know exactly what they're in for when they book an appointment to talk about "options" and don't pressure women into keeping the baby either through emotional manipulation or distributing false information.
The volunteer counselor at the Pregnancy Resourse Center eyed me with sympathy. She was an older woman, compassionate and not overbearing as she asked about my religion, my boyfriend, and what I think about abortion. I told her that right now I'm not making enough money, not settled down enough, not emotionally ready to go through with this imaginary pregnancy. She nodded kindly. "This is a major decision," she said. "The choice is permanent." At the end of our 10-minute meeting she wished me well and handed me a fat stack of pamphlets to help guide my decision.
Across town on Saturday, August 21, I'm loitering at the Planned Parenthood booth at Multnomah Village Days. Canvasser Heather Gillespie, in a pink shirt blaring "Protect Women's Choice!" and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon Communications Manager Rose Kelsch compete for fairgoers' attention with the senior citizen square-dancing troupe across the street.
"We're talking to pro-choice voters about our latest campaign!" Gillespie shouts over the banjo music. A woman wearing a purple sweatsuit, a purple hat, and a cross around her neck stops to hear the spiel.
"Crisis pregnancy centers are operating across the state of Oregon, offering women free pregnancy tests and counseling. But they're not regulated like medical providers," says Gillespie, holding out a pink petition. "Would you be willing to sign our petition asking the legislature to take action?"
After asking a couple questions, the purple-sweatsuited woman signs, smiling as she writes her name. "Not all Catholics are against abortion," she says.
The Oregon Planned Parenthood Action Fund is aiming to collect 10,000 signatures this summer to support a state bill forcing crisis pregnancy clinics to be transparent about the services they do and do not offer, and also distribute only "medically accurate" information about pregnancy and abortion.
Nationally, Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer signed on to co-sponsor a very similar congressional bill, the subtly named "Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women's Services Act," after his office received over 200 letters of support for the bill from constituents, many organized through Planned Parenthood or NARAL.
NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon Executive Director Michele Stranger Hunter says she sees the pregnancy center storefronts across the state as she travels for work, and their advertising upsets her. "My concern is that for women who need help, who are afraid that they're pregnant, they see a sign that says 'free pregnancy test' and 'pregnancy options counseling,' they go in thinking that they're going to get all options presented to them. It's really misleading," says Hunter. "It's like the spider to the fly."
PRO-LIFE, BUT OPEN MINDED
In my own experience faking pregnancy at two of the Pregnancy Resource Centers of Greater Portland, I found the staff both compassionate about my liberal beliefs and upfront about the services they don't provide. When I scheduled an appointment over the phone at the SE Powell clinic, the receptionist told me straight away, "We do not refer for abortions. We just let people know ahead of time what we do and don't do." During our meeting when I asked a counselor at that location to help me figure out the pros and cons of ending my pregnancy, she handed me a blank sheet of paper and told me I should write out for myself how I felt about my options. Cheers to that.
The open-minded advice surprised me, coming from a clinic whose stated purpose is "making a life-changing difference in the lives of our unborn." Planned Parenthood's Kelsch nodded when I told her about my encounter but noted that without regulation, experiences at crisis pregnancy centers could vary greatly.
"The problem with crisis pregnancy centers is that they're unregulated," says Kelsch. "You've got them operating basically however they want, the center deciding how they want to disclose their services."
At both crisis pregnancy centers I visited, the counselors gave me straightforward, unbiased advice. But the pamphlets they gave me as sources for more information were pure anti-abortion propaganda.
My personal pile of glossy pamphlets included a tract about the dangers of cohabitating before marriage (too late); an abstinence-promoting pamphlet informing me that based on my sexual experience, I have been exposed to 4,095 potentially STD-bearing individuals (whoops); a card directing me to check out true stories from other girls who have "been there" at Standupgirl.com; a pamphlet about the clinic's support group for "abortion-related trauma"; and a scary-looking booklet about the abortion pill titled, "RU-486 SURE?"
I checked out the website first. Standupgirl.com tells the stories of dozens of girls who have kept their babies and some who have had abortions. The divide is obvious. Girls who kept their babies unanimously tell happy stories of eventual pride and joy in their newborns. Stories from girls who chose abortion are unanimously racked with sorrow. The message is clear: You have a choice, but a life after abortion is a life of regret.
"RU-486 SURE?" is a Focus on the Family-produced pamphlet that tells the story of Jen, a girl whose "picture-perfect dream shattered into a million pieces" after she becomes pregnant. A doctor tells Jen she must take RU-486 within 49 days from the first day of her last period and she goes for it, even though, as the pamphlet explains, "the baby's heart has begun to beat, five fingers on each hand have formed, and the eyes are easily distinguished." Jen takes the pill and experiences horrible cramps and bleeding, eventually popping out into the toilet "a small translucent sac with a tiny form inside" that she "knew immediately was her baby." The story ends with her bursting into tears before closing with this thought: "RU-486 has been called a wonder drug. That's not true. An incredibly special and beautiful person is growing inside you. That much is true."
Except that much of that information in those pamphlets is not true, according to Planned Parenthood's doctors. They prescribe RU-486 up to 63 days into pregnancy, not 49, and at Jen's stage of pregnancy, there would be "no distinguishable features" of the embryo. The whole popping out a translucent baby sac is "very, very unlikely" says clinic spokeswoman Liz Delapoer. Instead, "what most women experience is bleeding out small blood clots."
And the abstinence pamphlet's attempt to determine risk of exposure to STDs is not an accurate gauge. Figuring out your STD risk requires more info than just the number of people you've slept with, says Delapoer, including whether you have safe sex, use a condom, or engage in other risky behaviors like shooting up drugs.
People who run crisis pregnancy centers say the nationwide debate over crisis pregnancy centers misrepresents the good work they do. Larry Gadbaugh is the CEO of the Pregnancy Resource Centers of Greater Portland, whose five clinics sees over 8,000 new patients (like me) every year. Many women show up for the free pregnancy tests and free baby and maternity clothes. Though the clinics do not refer women for birth control or abortion, Gadbaugh uses pro-choice language to describe his work.
"The accusations that we do false advertising, they've been making that claim for years and it's just not true. We don't advertise as an abortion provider. We don't have anything to hide. We're just there to serve the women who come in," says Gadbaugh. "We do not use bait and switch, we do not use manipulation. It's the women's decision." As for the accuracy of the information the Pregnancy Resource Centers distribute, Gadbaugh says it is approved by a group of seven doctors as well as doctors at the centers' partner, national pro-life group Care Net.
Deborah Vanni, executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Centers of Central Oregon located in Bend, has much the same response to the local and national campaign against crisis pregnancy centers.
"We don't protest, we don't knock on Planned Parenthood's door and tell them what to do and not do. We're just here to serve the community," says Vanni. "If you're really pro-choice, it should be about the choice for us to be here and serve women who want our help." Vanni says her clinics are up front that they don't refer women for abortion or birth control because they don't promote sex outside of marriage. If a question about birth control comes up, her counselors are trained to tell women to go ask their regular doctor.
A JUSTICE ISSUE
I'm lucky. If I don't like the information I get from the Pregnancy Resource Centers or I want to talk to someone about birth control, I have a choice. I live in Portland, where I can easily hop on my bike or the bus and head to any of eight clinics in the city that do discuss all pregnancy options. But living in a big, liberal city is a luxury in Oregon. That hits home when I talk to Jennifer Webster, a Eugene resident who started up an abortion-directory hotline called Network for Reproductive Options in 2002. That was the year when the only listed abortion provider in Eugene suddenly shut its doors, leaving some pregnant women who were scheduled for abortions desperate to find a provider, and fast. The hotline keeps track of abortion providers, including private doctors who don't list that particular service in the phone book, and collects donations to help low-income women cover the cost of abortions, which start at $450.
"To me, it's a justice issue. Women should be able to get abortions if they need them, whether or not they can pay for them and no matter where they live," says Webster. "All that restrictions do is hurt the most vulnerable women in our community. A woman who really, really needs an abortion is going to get one."
Since 2002, Webster's nonprofit has given away $50,000, or about 300 abortions a year, to women who don't have insurance or whose insurance doesn't cover abortion. Usually women who have found her are using the hotline as a last resort. They're facing eviction, they've lost their insurance, they're being abused. They're women in crisis.
"Crisis pregnancy centers are places where you go thinking they have your best interests at heart and they're really here to push you down one path," says Webster. "They're a great place if you're a woman who agrees with their agenda."