As an Infertile-American (at least, according to a doctor that one time—and, as you know, doctors are infallible) I have the luxury of never becoming pregnant. I’ve failed every pregnancy test I’ve ever taken with flying colors. I’ve never experienced the abject fear of knowing my body is filled with unwanted life. (And, in any imaginable circumstance, the primary emotion produced by pregnancy would certainly be fear. I can’t afford a child—hell, I can’t even afford to buy organic.)
In other words, if I were to ever become pregnant, I’d be a member of the economically vulnerable target demographic for crisis pregnancy centers: these mysterious places that number in the thousands all across the US, presenting themselves as medical offices while covertly intending to deceive pregnant women about the road that lies ahead.
Crisis pregnancy centers, often located near hospitals and Planned Parenthoods, advertise by purporting to give women “options,” up to and including the right to terminate their pregnancies. Their visual signposting and dominant language (“It’s Your Choice,” “Free Abortion Alternatives”) make them seem like safe havens for poor, disenfranchised gals desperate to exercise their right to choose and move on with their lives.
In reality, however, they’re often the opposite: disseminating misinformation and, in the process, robbing women of their autonomy. And the best worst part of the situation is the fact that plenty of crisis pregnancy centers, in spite of their duplicity, are actually licensed community clinics, which gives them an added air of respectability.
So, in the interest of trying to understand what actually goes on in these inexplicably legal establishments, I decided to go undercover as a preggers patsy.
Getting your hands on the urine of an expectant mother in order to pass it off as your own is harder than you think (although, I should say I didn’t try Craigslist, which might have been an easier, if much stranger, first stop). After months spent waiting for an appropriate hookup, the blessed day finally arrived. Feeling like Bob Woodward waiting for Deep Throat, I sat in my car eagerly anticipating that sweet, pregnant piss. It was warm when its creator handed it off to me, no doubt because it was tingling with the wonder and the majesty that is human life.
In order to double-check the potency, I went to a dollar store and bought a pregnancy test. The look of abject pity the cashier threw me could not be quantified, except perhaps in the free paper bag she gave me (normal cost: $0.10). Then the piss ended up passing the test.
Piss in hand, I headed to the “women’s clinic” I’d chosen to patronize, whose website URL had the word “abortion” in it. (The word was included to make it seem as though the clinic was a viable place to secure one.) Located within spitting distance of a Planned Parenthood and directly across the street from a community college, the building was generically drab, with frosted windows and a sign outside in Spanish that read, “GRATIS PRUEBA DE EMBARAZO” (“FREE PREGNANCY TEST”).
Inside, a certificate of congratulations from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors hung behind the front desk. A perky young nurse enquired as to what I was there for.
“A pregnancy test,” I whispered.
“No abortion?” she asked.
“Well, that’s determinant on the results of the test,” I said.
“We’ll see the pregnancy test first,” she replied, with disproportionate good cheer.
I acted meek, scared, and near tears—much as I would have were I, a person swimming in student loan debt who sleeps in a closet, actually been pregnant. It was easy to feel upset in a room that was built exclusively for a clientele in crisis. The “soothing” music accompanying the fake aquarium scene on the mounted TV in the waiting area did nothing to calm me.
The nurse gave me paperwork to sign. This paperwork indicated in very fine print that the clinic “did not perform or refer for abortion,” but the nurse herself never mentioned it except for her initial question. The only real clue to the ulterior motives of my surroundings were a couple tattered pages from a Focus on the Family publication buried in a basket of magazines.
After I took the piss test, I was led into a sterile counseling room. Through the wall, I could hear another woman being counseled in Spanish. I opened a velvet box on the table that appeared as though it contained jewelry; rather, it contained a collection of small plastic fetuses.
When the unnervingly giggly nurse returned, she asked me a litany of questions about myself, up to and including my religious preference. I told her I didn’t have one. Without ever confirming that I was pregnant, she inquired as to whether or not anyone was pressuring me into getting rid of my pregnancy; what the father of the child would want me to do; his name; what my parents and friends would want me to do; what I understood about abortion.
This last line of questioning went on for quite some time, as the nurse kept grilling me about the “risks” of abortion, asking me to list them.
“I don’t know,” I said, somewhat truthfully; abortion is somewhat safer than childbirth, after all. This, however, was not an acceptable answer to her queries, so she kept going, “educating” me, strangely upbeat in light of the subject matter. She kept telling me I looked young for my age. (Were I any younger than I am, it would be even more difficult to imagine a scenario in which having a child would be in any way appropriate or successful.) She asked me whether I’d prefer an abortion pill or surgical abortion, without telling me I couldn’t get either at the clinic. She insisted that I needed to get an ultrasound beforehand, because she wanted to make sure the pregnancy was “viable.”
Again, all this time, she had never actually confirmed to me that I was pregnant.
She kept going. We needed an ultrasound; the pregnancy could be ectopic, she said, growing outside my uterus. If this were the case, the abortion pill wouldn’t work, she said.
She called in the ultrasound tech, and while I waited, she handed me a “patients rights” brochure, telling me, “If you’re gonna get the abortion, you should know what your rights are as a patient.”
Those rights, according to the brochure, included holding the doctor or clinic liable if [I’m] “injured or killed,” and to not be “forced” into having an abortion.
“WARNING,” it read. “Abortion injuries can be fatal. If you suffer complications from your abortion, seek medical attention immediately.”
She asked if I wanted to watch a video about abortion procedures, telling me, “it’s animated but it’s really information.” (Not a typo: she said “information.”) I acquiesced, signing more paperwork in order to do so.
I had a few options in terms of the videos the clinic had on offer. All of them sounded grim. “Hard Truth,” for example, was a 12-minute “graphic [film] depicting fetal development and the remains of aborted fetus’ from early, mid and late-term abortions,” sounded harrowing. The animated picture seemed quaint in comparison, so I chose it.
The video opened with an enormous fetus being sucked up by a vacuum. It informed my “female area” was delicate. It said that, were I to get an abortion, I could contract an infection that could require a hysterectomy, or, in some cases, cause my death. I was told abortions increase the risk of miscarriage. I was told an abortion could rip a hole in my cervix, causing my intestines to be pulled through it. Again and again, I was told an abortion could be fatal. Only the risks were described.
The video was a full ten minutes of horrifying misinformation, up to and including the trotting out of that old myth that an abortion could increase my propensity for breast cancer. The takeaway was that an abortion would probably kill me, and at the very least render me infertile (a fate worse than death).
Afterward, the nurse handed me a series of pamphlets. One, entitled “Before You Decide” and distributed by CareNet, already had my mind made up for me. It purported that I had “options” and “deserve to know the facts.” (Which, of course, I do. Every pregnant woman should know the facts. But they should know the right ones. It is impossible to empower someone with misinformation, which was all the pamphlet held.)
“Abortion is not just a simple medical procedure,” it read. “For many women, it is a life-changing event with significant physical, emotional and spiritual consequences. Most women who struggle with past abortions say that they wish they had been told all of the facts about abortion.”
Still waiting for the ultrasound tech, I looked around the exam room. A binder labeled “Intimacy Before Impact: Preparing the Heart and Mind for Life-Giving Ministry” sat on the shelf. A license from the Department of Public Health hung on the wall above it.
When the ultrasound tech arrived, she asked what my plans were in regards to my pregnancy. I told her, “I don’t want to keep it.” She visibly bristled but said nothing as she wrote this information down.
After making me sign a document indicating that the ultrasound I was about to receive was limited and “not diagnostic,” she poked around in my barren womb for five minutes. She didn’t find see a baby in my uterus, she said, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t filled with God’s love! The lack of visible life within me could be the byproduct of number of things, she told me—the pregnancy could so early on, the gestational sack hadn’t yet developed (but I thought life began at conception!), or the pregnancy could be entropic.
She insisted on referring me to an actual doctor so I could get a blood test. Either that, or I should wait a couple weeks (and thus, let the life within me flourish and become more attached to it) and get another ultrasound.
At this, the director of the organization, a falsely amiable blonde Southern woman (as I would imagine directors at places such as these were contractually obligated to be), entered the room. She echoed the tech’s insistence that I go right away to their preferred doctor and get a diagnosis. “The fact that she’s not seeing anything? That’s not a normal pregnancy,” she told me. She asked if I could see the doctor, a man a later Google search revealed was a “pro-life OBGYN,” immediately. I told her I could.
“Before the exam, you were abortion-minded,” the tech told me after the director had left. “Did the ultrasound change your mind?”
“No,” I informed her.
“So… you’re still abortion-minded, even if you happen to be tubally pregnant?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied. To this, she had no response.
Which made sense. No one ever gave me a straight answer to anything. They placated me, keeping me prisoner via their silence. As I left, I could hear the director tell another patient she looked young for her age through the wall.
Were I less informed, more naïve, I could have easily believed their lies—that most women regretted their abortions, that there was a reasonable chance I would, after seeking an abortion, die. The “facts” they trotted out were all pseudoscience, but scientifically presented. Every harrowing statement presented in the pamphlets had a legitimate-looking reference to a medical study attached to it. The “nurses” all wore scrubs. The ultrasound machine was functional. The fixed smiles on the faces of the employees implied they had the best interests of my unborn child and I at heart. And, though my unborn child was only hypothetical, nothing could’ve been further from the case.
Illustration by Jim Cooke
Megan Koester is a writer and comedian (obviously) living in Los Angeles (somewhat less obviously). You can follow her on Twitter at @bornferal.
For more information on CPCs, and to get involved in trying to eliminate them, visit cpclies.com.