In October, investigative reporter Olivia Raisner visited five anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers—clinics that often receive state funding, despite providing no medical services and pushing disinformation to dissuade pregnant people from choosing abortion—in Indiana. She entered each clinic armed with her pregnant friend’s urine, a button on her shirt that secretly doubled as a camera, and scheduled appointments. There, she declined to sign any paperwork that asked her not to record conversations to “make sure everything I did was legal,” Raisner told me in a phone interview. “The anti-abortion movement has been filming, not legally, for years now, and we don’t want to stoop to their level,” Raisner said.
On Thursday, Mayday Health posted a video capturing Raisner’s experiences at the CPCs. In one clip, after she turns in a positive pregnancy test and says she’s considering abortion, an employee immediately begins spewing a steady stream of easily disproven lies. The staffer warns Raisner, without any evidence, that “there’s been a lot of suicides” after abortion and that “it is a very common problem.” Ironically enough, research has shown that being denied an abortion negatively impacts someone’s mental health, and over 95 percent of people who have abortions don’t regret the decision. Nonetheless, the employee sternly claims that other mental health issues could arise, warning Raisner that having an abortion could even cause her to develop an eating disorder. She told Jezebel that several clinics said this.
The clinic worker featured in Mayday’s video specifically emphasized the (false) claim that if Raisner used medication abortion, she had the option to “reverse” the abortion through a special pill, via a dangerous, non-proven method called “abortion pill reversal.” Raisner told Jezebel that as medication abortion becomes more widely used, given its continued availability in all 50 states, anti-abortion activists are increasingly pushing this bogus, medically dangerous claim.
Even as Raisner had the facts going into the anti-abortion clinics, she said it still required significant effort to “keep my emotions and anger at bay” as clinic staff members lied to her face. “I knew that the longer I was able to stay in there, and really sell my story as a pregnant person, the more I would be able to record,” she explained. “I needed to show the interactions that are taking place countless times a day across the country, for all the pregnant people who go to these centers and don’t have the information.”
As Raisner explains in the video, it’s common for staff at crisis pregnancy centers to pose as actual doctors in order to push random, inaccurate medical claims about abortion—almost like anti-choice improv. The staffer Raisner interacts with proceeds to run through all the hits, including that abortion causes infertility (it doesn’t) and medication abortion pills are unsafe because of “high levels of estrogen and progesterone” (they don’t have either.) “They offer free ultrasounds, financial assistance, all the resources necessary, and make it very tempting to lean on them,” Raisner told Jezebel. “Unfortunately, we know they’re fake medical clinics whose only agenda is to spread lies, to shame people away from abortion.”
At the five clinics Raisner visited, she said it was as if all the employees were reading from the same pre-written “script,” with different anecdotes subbed in. “Conversations were almost identical—when I told them I was thinking about abortion, they all led with ‘suicide’ and the risk of that,” Raisner said. This sounds like the worst possible co-optation of heightened public awareness around mental health.
Advocates performing undercover sting operations around abortion aren’t uncommon—but famously, they’re more often perpetrated by anti-abortion activists going into abortion clinics and collecting and doctoring footage to galvanize cultural panics about “Planned Parenthood selling baby parts.” (The summer of 2015 feels like just yesterday.)
To prepare to perform her own undercover operation, Raisner researched local crisis pregnancy centers, made calls describing her made-up “situation,” and booked appointments. In advance of these appointments, she said she “practiced using this little remote control” to operate the button-camera and prepared questions that pregnant people typically ask—for example, about the safety of abortion and possible concerns. Of course, as Mayday Health’s video asserts, medication abortion results in fewer extreme complications than Tylenol.
Across the country, even before Roe v. Wade was overturned and several states immediately banned abortion, crisis pregnancy centers outnumbered actual abortion-providing clinics by a three-to-one ratio, and many centers receive state and federal funding. Further, because they aren’t actual health care centers, they aren’t bound to the same privacy standards set by HIPAA that actual health providers must abide by. Yet, they collect all of the same private and personal information that health providers do, with the freedom to share this information as they see fit.
Raisner told Jezebel that clinic staff took her driver’s license, her address, and asked about her job and her family and friends. “They very purposely try to identify other people in your life who could supposedly help you raise this baby,” she recalled. After she left the clinic saying she was unsure whether she’d get an abortion, CPC employees followed up several times and asked her to come back.
Crisis pregnancy centers have increasingly become a major surveillance apparatus for anti-abortion activists and even state governments that contract with anti-abortion clinics—with serious potential consequences when abortion and pregnancy loss are increasingly resulting in criminal charges.
Several victims of crisis pregnancy centers have told the Expose Fake Clinics campaign about similar experiences, including one who said that after she left a clinic, a CPC worker “began calling her almost daily and telling her that she would die, or end up in hell, or get very sick if she were to go through with the abortion.” Some said they were forced to sign contracts pledging to not have an abortion before leaving the clinic.
“They just want you to give birth, and they’ll say anything for that—they offered me money, gave me baby blankets, they invite the premise that they’ll be supporting me,” Raisner said. But it’s all just words. “It’s clear that that support really stops after that person gives birth.”