By Jessica Bearden

During the recently concluded legislative session, the General Assembly passed a bill to authorize “Choose Life” license plates that now awaits consideration by Governor Kaine. Funds generated from the plates will be distributed to so-called “crisis pregnancy centers.”

There are over 70 crisis pregnancy centers in Virginia, and you’ve most likely seen their advertisements—billboards that read “Pregnant? Scared? We can help.” Many people mistakenly believe that these centers do nothing more than provide materials and support to women who have made the decision to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term.

In reality, they have an extreme anti-choice agenda and often misinform and mislead women about their options. Though they assume the impartial, authoritative trappings of modern healthcare, their function is primarily political—to berate and coerce those women they call “abortion-minded” into carrying the pregnancy to term. A review of the materials produced by crisis pregnancy centers and several investigative reports about them reveal several of the deceptive and coercive tactics most commonly employed by crisis pregnancy centers.

First, crisis pregnancy centers give women medically inaccurate information about abortion, claiming the procedure is dangerous and can cause breast cancer, infertility and extreme mental health problems, such as suicidal tendencies. There is no legitimate scientific evidence to support any of these claims. In fact, first-trimester abortions are among the safest surgical procedures performed in the United States. Less than 0.5 percent of women obtaining abortions experience a complication, and the risk of death associated with abortion is about one-tenth that associated with childbirth. In addition, the medical community has firmly established that no link exists between abortion and the development of breast cancer, and that having an abortion does not affect the psychological well-being of women over time.

Second, in an effort to delay a woman’s decision to have an abortion until it is too late to do so under Virginia law, crisis pregnancy centers often tell women that they will probably miscarry anyway, so they should wait to make a decision about what to do. Not only does this effectively prevent women who want to terminate their pregnancy from exercising their constitutionally protected right to do so, it also encourages women who may decide to carry their pregnancy to term to delay seeking critical prenatal medical care.

Further, in their zealotry, crisis pregnancy centers frequently fail to maintain the professional neutrality that is a commonly accepted tenet of counseling. For example, in an investigative report compiled by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, crisis pregnancy center staff were documented offering congratulations for a positive pregnancy test, and one crisis pregnancy center staffer became very aggressive with an investigator and yelled at her for making a “terrible decision” when she refused to return to the center. In addition, because crisis pregnancy centers are often staffed by volunteers who are not medical professionals, they sometimes give inaccurate information about basic reproductive health issues, such as the effectiveness of contraception, the difference between emergency contraception (which prevents pregnancy) and RU-486 (which causes a medical abortion), and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections.

Women are entitled to accurate, comprehensive and unbiased medical information with which they can make their own decisions.

If the anti-choice movement really wanted to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country, then they would work with the pro-choice movement to increase access to contraception and comprehensive sexuality education—real solutions that will lower the rate of unintended pregnancies and reduce the need for abortion.

Funding anti-choice centers that manipulate and coerce women does nothing to accomplish this goal—and make no mistake, the license plates have the potential to generate thousands of dollars in revenue for these organizations (Florida’s DMV reports that in that state, the “Choose Life” license plate generates over $65,000 a month for crisis pregnancy centers).

We should support legitimate, comprehensive reproductive healthcare clinics instead of crisis pregnancy centers whose missions have nothing to do with healthcare and everything to do with a political agenda. Hopefully, the governor will remember this when the license plate proposal reaches his desk.
Bearden is political and policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Virginia Forum. 3/09