In an August 18 article, Clarion Ledger’s Sarah Fowler highlighted the deceptive tactics deployed by Mississippi’s crisis pregnancy centers -- called CPCs or anti-abortion fake health clinics -- and explained how they can be particularly problematic in a state like Mississippi that now has only one abortion clinic.
Nationwide, fake health clinics are known for relying on underhanded tactics, including deceptive advertising and imitating medical facilities, in order to scare or persuade individuals against obtaining an abortion. An attempt to regulate these clinics by California fell flat this year when the Supreme Court ruled that a state law regulating fake health clinics was likely unconstitutional. The law requires the clinics to disclose either their non-medical facility status or the fact they do not offer comprehensive reproductive health services.
As a result, anti-abortion fake health clinics have been able to continue their deceptive practices. Many of these fake health centers falsely list abortion on their website as a service they provide. Fowler pointed to a Mississippi clinic called the Center for Pregnancy Choices as an example:
Their website ... describes both surgical and non-surgical abortions. Under the description of non-surgical abortion, the center clearly states they do not perform that procedure. But when the reader clicks on surgical abortions, they are directed to make an appointment.
In addition to this deception, many anti-abortion groups like Human Coalition and Heartbeat International use search engine marketing to target those seeking abortions on Google and redirect them to these fake health clinics. As Shannon Brewer, the director of Mississippi’s only abortion clinic -- Jackson Women’s Health -- told Fowler, “When you Google abortion, CPCs pop up.” Beyond manipulating search terms, fake health clinics also attempt to deceive people by imitating abortion providers. For example, a website for an anti-abortion clinic in Massachusetts contained “a near-verbatim repetition of the stated mission of the abortion clinic nearby,” according to Rewire.News. Felicia Brown Williams, the director of Planned Parenthood Mississippi, explained aspects of this tactic to Fowler, stating:
“Historically, what we have seen is that many crisis pregnancy centers intentionally use names that are close to either Planned Parenthood or could be easily construed as abortion providers. … They do that in an attempt to, for lack of a better word, trick people into believing that they'll be provided with a full scope of options or at least information on the full scope of options available to them. Often that is not what people receive once they enter inside.”
Many anti-abortion clinics have also located next to abortion clinics in the hopes of confusing those seeking abortions by having them enter the CPC by mistake. Fowler pointed to a Center for Pregnancies Choices clinic that “is one block away from Jackson Women's Health Center.” She noted, “Volunteers or protestors often stand outside Jackson Women's Health Center and attempt to direct women visiting the clinic to the Center for Pregnancy Choices, telling them they can get a free ultrasound.”
Fake health clinics offer things like ultrasounds to bolster their appearance as a legitimate medical facility. However, as Fowler explained, because “CPCs are not held to any state or federal standard,” there is no requirement that centers have trained medical professionals on staff. In fact, as Fowler wrote, the pregnancy tests provided at these clinics “are similar to tests found in drugstores and many are self-administered, according to Kimberly Kelly, director of Gender Studies and associate professor of sociology at Mississippi State University.”
In contrast, as Fowler explained, abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood clinics “are staffed by doctors, nurses and other professionally trained staff.” In Mississippi, she noted, “Jackson Women's Health Center and Planned Parenthood in Hattiesburg offer a range of health care options including pap smears, annual exams, cancer and STI screenings and access to contraception. They are bound by the national Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that protects patient privacy.”
Beyond calling out the deceptive tactics of fake health centers, Fowler also elevated the personal experience of a woman going by the name “Liz” who was tricked into accidentally visiting an anti-abortion clinic after a search engine result suggested she could get an abortion there. Fowler wrote:
When Liz became pregnant unexpectedly, she turned to Google. After finding a listing for what she thought was an abortion clinic, she scheduled an appointment and made the hour drive from Columbus to Tupelo. She drove to the center with the intent of having an abortion.
Her appointment took an unexpected turn. Instead of being able to talk about terminating her pregnancy, Liz was given a baby's bib with a Bible verse on it and sent home.
She began to cry.
“My heart felt heavy and my eyes filled with tears,” she said. “I actually had my 15-month-old with me. It stung.”
Once home, the bib “laid on my deep freezer near my kitchen and was a constant physical reminder of my already difficult decision.”
“I went to that clinic for help, an open ear,” she said, “not for someone to make me feel like I was going to rot in hell.”
Shortly after, Liz traveled out of state to get an abortion.
“When I walked in that clinic in Memphis, I knew I was in the right place. Those women were there to do a job. They were there to give me a service and to help me, woman to woman, with a hand out instead of a bib.”
In a state with one abortion clinic and, as Fowler noted, “more than 30 organizations that identify along the lines of a crisis pregnancy center,” stories like Liz’s are common. It is thus critically important that outlets like Clarion Ledger continue to highlight those experiences and call out fake health clinics’ deceptive tactics.