When someone faces an unintended pregnancy, they need to know how to make the best decision and what option to pursue: becoming a parent, adoption or abortion. But that information is becoming increasingly hard to find these days.
Few clinics counsel women through that decision, and far too many “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) offer misinformation disguised as help and medical advice. That lack of options and CPC’s deceptiveness led Backline — a national nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California operating a hotline for callers wanting to talk about their experiences with pregnancy, parenting, abortion and adoption — to open the All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center in Bloomington, Indiana, on May 2. The center provides “open-hearted and open-minded support” for everyone making decisions about their pregnancies.
“Our callers tell us how rare and important it is for them to find this kind of open-hearted support and get to bring their whole selves into the conversation,” said Parker Dockray, executive director of Backline.
The All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center employs trained staff who can refer clients to inclusive adoption agencies, support groups, local parenting services, breastfeeding classes, as well as abortion funding and providers. They will also offer free pregnancy tests, everyday-parenting supplies like diapers, and baby clothes. More than 60 percent of women having abortions are already parents, and as Dockray stressed, “these are not separate needs — the truth is that families can need diapers and formula and an abortion referral and support all at the same time.”
Breon Tyler, a graduate student at Indiana University, is thrilled that the resource center is opening and offering a holistic approach. “As a Black woman, I prefer to be treated as a human being with needs and concerns rather than a statistic or problem,” she said. “One of the objectives for the All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center is to ask women, men, and families, ‘What do you need?’ rather than attempting to diagnose what’s wrong with them.”
Like Tyler, most people want science-based health information and an understanding ear, not ideology or political rhetoric. But as anti-choice laws take hold in many states and politicians force themselves into the patient-clinician relationship, access to basic information about reproductive health is elusive. Many searching for answers unintentionally turn to the more than 3,500 CPCs popping up across the country; CPCs now outnumber the estimated 1,800 abortion facilities in the United States.
CPCs are fake clinics that offer biased information. Recently, NARAL Pro-Choice America* released a report detailing undercover investigations at crisis pregnancy centers in ten states. Researchers found that the information they were disseminating was shaming and medically inaccurate, particularly when it came to abortion and birth control. Many CPCs receive taxpayer funding to have “counselors” (deliberately dressed in lab coats posing as medical providers) spread misinformation about reproductive healthcare. According to the report, a worker at one CPC in California misidentified an investigator’s birth control, an intrauterine device (IUD), as “her baby” during an ultrasound. At another, staff said that condoms are “naturally porous” and do not protect against sexually transmitted infections.
Those who visit CPCs looking for information may leave with a pack of diapers, a few baby clothes, infant formula, and empty promises. But they get no realistic parenting support. That’s by design: The organizations funding these centers oppose abortion and actively promote abstinence-only education, an ineffective approach that’s doubly problematic in a country where half of all pregnancies are unintended.
“Unfortunately, a lot of CPCs present themselves as neutral and unbiased. But, in reality, they are almost exclusively anti-abortion and Christian-faith-based,” explained Dockray. “There is nothing inherently wrong with that orientation, of course, but being misleading or deceptive about the values and limitations of your agency is not fair to people who may seek your services.”
“CPCs often prey on women who may not feel they have a support system to turn to and might have barriers to health-care access,” said Backline board member Kwajelyn Jackson. The goal of the All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center is to provide the information a person needs, and leave the decision solely up to them. Jackson says their mission is about “trusting women to make well-informed decisions about what is best for themselves without bias or coercion.”
The center also offers sexual health education that’s LGBT inclusive, and referrals for STD and HIV testing. With the recent the HIV outbreak in Indiana, the availability of referral services like this can be lifesaving.
“It is a mistake to make assumptions about who does and doesn’t need these services,” explained Jackson. “Queer people can get pregnant, trans people can get pregnant, intersex people can get pregnant. Every situation is different and deserves to be treated with the same compassion and care. It is important to provide access to all people who need it, without judgment.”
Most importantly, all services at the center are confidential and free, ensuring that no one is turned away due to economic status.
The center also seeks to address some of the stigma associated with pregnancy and sex in communities of color. “A center like this is particularly important for the Black community because too often our reproductive, sexual, and parenting decisions get caught in the cross hairs of two extremes,” said Latishia James, also a Backline board member and seminary student. “Either we are seen as overly strict, hyper-religious, nonsexual beings who adhere to respectability politics put forth for our survival. Or we are hypersexualized, ‘loose,’ unfit parents who have no control over our desires and reproduce ad nauseum.”
Centers like the All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center are important in states where pregnancy is increasingly being criminalized through legislation, including jailing people experiencing miscarriages or addiction while pregnant.
“Indiana is really hostile to the needs of pregnant people in general, and when you factor in the inherent racial bias in every system, including health care, pregnancy outcomes for the Black community tend to be even worse,” said Harmony Glenn of the group Indy Feminists.
And it’s not just Black women; women of color and immigrants experiencing unintended pregnancy are particularly at risk in Indiana. Just last month, the state made headlines when a court in South Bend sentenced Purvi Patel, an Indian American woman, to 20 years in prison on contradicting charges of “child neglect” and “feticide.” Patel claims she miscarried her pregnancy, then became nervous placing her stillborn fetus in a dumpster, and sought medical attention for heavy bleeding. While some of the facts of the case remain unclear, her doctor (who is part of an anti-choice medical association) later reported her to authorities and she was subsequently arrested. In 2012, an Indiana court prosecuted Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant who ingested rat poison as a suicide attempt, but resulted in the termination of her pregnancy.
Cases like these point to the dire need to increase the funding for pregnancy resources that don’t shame, but rather seek to understand an individuals’ situation and help them through it. Communities of color are already being over-policed, in the streets and now in the doctor’s office. We don’t need to be placing more of our brothers and sisters in jail simply because they didn’t have the ability to turn to a health care provider for help.
“If we can create an environment where women feel safe to make decisions about their bodies and have access to the resources to support them in those choices; have a medical community that values the lives of women, their health and safety before, during, and after pregnancy; and give them the care they need at every stage, we might see fewer cases where women feel forced to take risks with their health to terminate a pregnancy,” Jackson said. “We need less legislation of people’s bodies and personal medical decisions, and more resources that would allow people to live, and if they choose to, parent, with dignity.”
Renee Bracey Sherman is an award winning reproductive justice activist and the author of Saying Abortion Aloud: Research and Recommendations for Public Abortion Storytellers and Organizations. She is a writer with Echoing Ida, a project of Forward Together that amplifies the voices of Black women thought leaders and currently sits on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation.