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Crisis Pregnancy Centers Are Spying on Pregnant People, New Study Says

The anti-abortion "clinics" don't just deceive pregnant people considering abortion care—they spy on and put them at legal risk, too.

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Crisis pregnancy centers, the anti-abortion organizations that attempt to lure mostly poor people of color with unwanted pregnancies to their premises and dissuade them from having abortions, are a proven danger to public health, according to a new study by The Alliance: State Advocates for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.

The nationwide coalition of reproductive health advocates’ new research says crisis pregnancy centers have become an even greater threat to the health and safety of pregnant people amid the recent surge in state abortion bans and restrictions — particularly Texas’ SB8, a near-total abortion ban that relies on citizen policing and surveillance for enforcement, which took effect last September.

Where do CPCs fit into the success of laws like SB8? They’re “plugged into the global anti-abortion movement’s sophisticated digital infrastructure, which facilitates expansion, client surveillance, and systemic, coordinated promotion of anti-abortion disinformation,” the study says.

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Most anti-abortion “clinics” may pose as local mom-and-pops run by people resembling the family of your cool youth pastor, but they’re often part of massive, global networks that threaten abortion access and pregnant people’s autonomy on a number of fronts — all while often receiving taxpayer funding.

At least 10 states allocate federal welfare funding to CPCs, instead of supporting actual health care access, or resources for parents and families. The Alliance reports the ratio of crisis pregnancy centers to abortion-providing clinics in the US stands at 3 to 1, with even higher disparities in states that fund CPCs: In Pennsylvania, the ratio is 9 to 1, and in Minnesota, 11 to 1.

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Many CPCs purposefully set up shop near actual abortion clinics, or will park their mobile clinics near abortion providers in an effort to confuse and prey on patients. With the state funding they receive, many CPCs don’t even provide the free prenatal and pregnancy resources that they claim they do. Instead, “provision of these goods was contingent on the client’s participation in ‘earn while you learn’ classes or counseling, Bible studies, abstinence seminars, video screenings, or other ideological CPC programming.”

Pregnant people seeking actual health care stumble upon these disinformation-peddling enclaves, likely after seeing targeted ads on search engines or on social media and are led to believe they’re actual health services. At these centers, patients are often treated primarily to drugstore-grade pregnancy tests and a barrage of lies about how abortion causes breast cancer or how medication abortions can be “reversed.” CPCs might also throw in a “non-diagnostic” ultrasound, technology that is used “as a tool to persuade clients to carry their pregnancies to term and falsely signal medical legitimacy,” The Alliance notes. This is despite how the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine condemns use of ultrasounds for any “non-medical purpose.”

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A key takeaway from the report is the unique threat that CPCs pose to pregnant people’s privacy, through the information they collect online and in-person from people considering abortion. As Texas’ SB8 remains in effect and copycat laws proliferate in state legislatures across the country, surveillance of pregnant people and criminalization of abortion and pregnancy loss will essentially become institutionalized to enforce these laws — and that’s where CPCs come in:

“CPCs are positioned to play a central role in surveillance of pregnant people in such a vigilante system. They exist, after all, to reach people experiencing unintended pregnancies, and collect extensive digital data on their clients and their reproductive histories.”

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Already, anti-abortion groups have recently partnered with popular fertility tracking apps to gain access to users’ personal data, like menstrual cycles and pregnancies. The anti-abortion, crisis pregnancy center conglomerate Heartbeat International stores its digital communications with “abortion-minded” pregnant people to use “for any and all purposes.” And there have already been several cases of digital forensics, like online searches for abortion pills and text messages, or even reverse geo-fencing, used to criminalize people who have lost their pregnancies or induced their own abortions, and face feticide or child endangerment charges.

Criminal charges for miscarriages, stillbirths, self-managed abortions, and other pregnancy outcomes have tripled in recent years, from 413 prosecutions between 1973 and 2005 to more than 1,250 between 2006 and 2020, says the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. As though deceiving and draining the time and resources of people seeking abortion care weren’t enough, this new study is an illuminating look at an increasingly effective tool for spying on pregnant people and targeting poor people of color.