Figuring out how to get good health care can be hard enough under everyday circumstances, much less when you need an abortion. In that case, it makes sense that you might jump at anyone’s offer to help you figure out your options. Unfortunately, that could lead you to a crisis pregnancy center.
Also known as CPCs, these centers don’t actually perform abortions. Instead, CPCs offer counseling from an anti-choice (and typically religious) standpoint in an attempt to get people to continue their pregnancies. They often target those who might have the hardest time getting adequate medical care, like young people, people of color, and those with low incomes.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with considering each and every option available to you when you’re pregnant and not sure you want to be or definitely sure you don’t want to be. The issue is that since CPCs are inherently anti-choice, they don’t present people with all of the information they might need to make the best decision for themselves.
It’s become particularly confusing to differentiate real abortion clinics from crisis pregnancy centers. Although the exact number of U.S. CPCs is hard to pin down, they’re thought to outnumber actual abortion-providing facilities (including hospitals, doctors’ offices, and abortion clinics), which scientists from the Guttmacher Institute pinned at 1,671 in 2014. Many CPCs have gotten smarter and trickier about using language to appear like real medical clinics. And it doesn’t help that in 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that crisis pregnancy centers in California do not have to disclose exactly which services they do and don’t provide, which many see as a move that could embolden CPCs across the country.
So, if you or someone you love needs an abortion, how can you figure out where to access one? Here are a few signs that the “abortion clinic” you may be considering might actually be a crisis pregnancy center.
1. They run ads asking if you’re pregnant, scared, and need help.
This type of ad is often a tell-tale sign of a crisis pregnancy center, Heather Shumaker, J.D., senior counsel with the National Women’s Law Center, tells SELF.
That’s exactly what drew Jasmine Clemons, 35, to a crisis pregnancy center when she was 22. She’d already struck out twice when looking for abortion care: Her gynecologist’s office dismissed her, and an abortion at the private clinic in town would cost her a month’s rent. When she saw a sign on her college campus that said “Pregnant and need help?” with a phone number, Clemons thought it was her last option. The red flags started stacking up quickly once she visited the center.
“It looked like a small business office, so I was confused,” Clemons tells SELF. “I sat in this room, and [a staffer] asked me about my faith, my family, and my relationship.”
The staffer then used these details to try to change Clemons’s mind.
“When I said I wanted an abortion because I was young and worked retail, she asked me how God and my family would feel about that,” Clemons says. “She took all these answers that I gave her about my personal life and flipped them on me. It made me feel even more dejected. I left and cried in my car. I can still feel the anger I felt that day.”
Clemons eventually got the care she needed after realizing her health insurance would cover an abortion with a manageable co-pay, though she had to travel hours away to an in-network clinic. “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t thought to look into my health insurance,” Clemons says.
It’s not just pregnancy—some CPCs run ads about providing services for other issues, like screening for sexually transmitted infections. Brooke W., 28, who wound up in a CPC after seeing their ads for free STI screenings on her college campus, knows this very well.
“They were right next to campus, so a friend and I decided to go together,” Brooke tells SELF. But the staffer she met with focused much of the conversation around abstinence, Brooke says, which left her feeling upset.
2. They advertise or set up shop where people are most vulnerable.
As Shumaker notes, crisis pregnancy centers often run ads or operate where people might be searching for an abortion. Think: next to actual abortion clinics, for instance.
“I’ve talked to a lot of folks at abortion clinics who say a patient will schedule an appointment only to get delayed because they went to the [crisis pregnancy center] next door,” Shumaker says. This can even happen because sidewalk protesters outside of abortion-providing centers will tell patients to go to the crisis pregnancy center instead, Shumaker says.
College campuses, like the one where Clemons saw the sign leading her to a CPC, offer a chance for these centers to target people who might be young, scared, and without a ton of options for quality health care. CPCs sometimes run ads on public transportation or in low-income neighborhoods (where they might also operate), both spots that NARAL Pro-Choice America points out may be more likely to attract poor people of color who are looking to end pregnancies.
3. They make abortion sound really dangerous.
Just knowing that crisis pregnancy centers are out there is a good first step when you’re researching where to get an abortion, Shumaker says. It can make you more critical about any false abortion claims you may hear.
“It’s helpful to be informed about some of the myths surrounding abortion,” Shumaker says. She uses the example of the lie that abortion can cause breast cancer, which the National Cancer Institute has studied rigorously and determined isn’t true. “You’ll see myths like that often on [CPC] websites,” Shumaker says.
The Guttmacher Institute outlines a few other common but completely false myths regarding safe, legal abortion: that it can cause infertility or pregnancy issues later in life, that it’s likely to have long-term negative impacts on mental health, that abortion is often or always a dangerous and even life-threatening procedure. Again, none of this is true, but it’s the kind of information you might hear from a crisis pregnancy center.
What makes this even more ridiculous is that while some CPCs are licensed medical centers, most aren’t, according to a paper in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics. While some have licensed medical professionals on staff, most don’t. So these are usually unlicensed people who are not medical professionals but giving out false information. Sometimes they even wear white medical coats to really complete the (again, false) picture, as the authors of the paper explain.
If you wind up at what you thought was an abortion clinic but are feeling suspicious, you can straight up ask if the person seeing you is a doctor or nurse, Nourbese Flint, policy director and manager of reproductive justice programming at Black Women for Wellness, a California-based health equity organization that works to educate black women and women of color about their health, tells SELF. “I wouldn’t normally ask that at my doctor’s office,” Flint says. But that’s a big reason why staffers at these clinics can sway people, she explains: “Most people assume they are medical professionals.”
4. They won’t clearly say if they do or don’t perform abortions.
You might call a clinic you found online, ask if they provide abortions, and hear that you need to come in before they’ll answer. This is a red flag, says Shumaker. These kinds of responses are usually intended to get you to come in and have a conversation that could then influence your decision to get an abortion.
If you do actually go into a CPC, you’ll often pretty quickly get the sense that they don’t think abortion is your best option. “If your conversation leans one way, then we say they’re catfishing you,” says Flint.
Shumaker says she’s even heard of staffers at crisis pregnancy centers lying to people about how far along they are in their pregnancies, either by telling them they have more time to decide before getting an abortion (when they legally don’t) or telling them they are too far along (when they’re really not). This can be a tactic to delay someone from getting an abortion until it’s no longer legal.
Remember that a real medical health center—whether or not it provides or refers for abortions—shouldn’t try to scare you into any one particular choice. “It’s so cruel to infringe on a patient’s autonomy,” Hasstedt says.
5. They use words like “choice” and “hope” but still won’t say if they perform abortions.
Crisis pregnancy centers often have the word “choice” in their names, giving the illusion that they provide a broad range of care, Kinsey Hasstedt, M.P.H., senior policy manager at the Guttmacher Institute, tells SELF.
“[This language] is one of the most ironic things about crisis pregnancy centers,” Hasstedt says. “It’s particularly deceptive.”
That’s definitely not to say that every single health clinic with the word “choice” in its name will be a crisis pregnancy center. Choice is obviously a hugely important sentiment when discussing abortion. Seeing something that appears to be pro-choice is most likely reassuring in this instance. But if you see it in conjunction with any (or many) of the other signs on this list, that’s a signal that the facility deserves some extra scrutiny. The same goes for “hope,” which is another word many CPCs have adopted, Shumaker says, and “abortion-minded women,” a phrase that various CPCs and anti-choice organizations use.
All of this nuance can make things pretty confusing when you’re looking online to find abortion-providing centers near you. Keep in mind that when you do an online search for local abortion services, you might come across both abortion clinics and crisis pregnancy centers. Doing some extra digging can make all the difference.
To avoid CPCs, try to get a referral.
When looking for an abortion provider, it’s best to get a referral from someone you trust. That might be someone you know who’s already gotten an abortion or received great reproductive or sexual health care from an abortion-providing center. If you don’t know anyone who can refer you, it’s time to turn to resources made for this very situation.
Shumaker recommends entering your zip code into the Planned Parenthood website to see the closest health clinics to you (or you can call their helpline at 1-800-230-7526). The National Abortion Federation also has a list of abortion providers across the country on their website (or you can call their hotline at 1-877-257-0012).
To be extra sure, you can cross-check any center you come across on Expose Fake Clinics, which has a map of various crisis pregnancy centers across the United States.
“If something doesn’t feel right, you’re probably right,” Shumaker says. “Trust your gut,”