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Who are the Crisis Pregnancy Centres?

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Pro-Choice Press, Spring/Summer 2004
By Sally Johansen

Crisis Pregnancy Centres (CPC's) and similar anti-choice "counseling" groups work to persuade women not to have abortions, and to "help" women who regret their abortion decision. (They also provide some legitimate help to disadvantaged women who want to carry their babies to term.)

The organization and funding of CPC's operate at a new and more organized level than groups like Birthright or Christians for Life. The CPC’s (or Carenet in the U.S.) have non-profit status and are linked to right-wing fundamentalist churches. Through the churches, layers of umbrella groups direct activities and channel funds from higher, faceless, and almost invisible right-wing conservative organizations. In Canada, CPC’s are under the umbrella of CAPSS, the Christian Association of Pregnancy Support Services, which is under the Christian Advocacy Society. This group has an office in the Burnaby CPC where a man in a suit runs the show. The Christian Advocacy Society works with and has board members from Focus on the Family out of Denver, which is an extremely powerful, well-funded, extreme right, fundamentalist Christian political organization. Focus on the Family's anti-feminist, anti gay, family values doctrine trickles down to local CPC’s.

Doctrinal unity is achieved by the extraordinarily restrictive membership policies in CAPSS. They demand attendance in an Evangelical right wing church, along with signing statements of faith and a code of ethics, and completing a volunteer application that wants to know your Christian affiliations and your pro-life activities. The final interview asks: Under what circumstances would you consider abortion as an alternative for a woman experiencing a crisis pregnancy? Only if you answer “Never an option” are you finally accepted into the fold. When training volunteers, examples are described of fetuses with extreme medical problems such as malformations where the heart has formed outside of the body, and the fetus would not survive outside of the womb. Ending the pregnancy still cannot be considered.

It was two Focus on the Family doctors, Terri and Paul Reisser who seem to have coined the phrase "post-abortion syndrome" (PAS), which is now used in all anti-choice literature, but is not found in the DMS (a medical bible of psychological disorders). PAS is a conglomeration of symptoms that are normally associated with severe depression and anxiety disorders. Pamphlets on PAS list a catchall of symptoms that could be due to other, real disorders. They include: guilt, anxiety, psychological numbing, depression, suicidal thoughts, anniversary syndrome, re-experiencing the abortion, preoccupation with becoming pregnant again, anxiety over fertility and child-bearing issues, interruption of the bonding process with present or future children, survival guilt, development of eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, other self-punishing or self-degrading behaviours, and brief reactive psychosis. Introducing this list to a woman who has had an abortion is itself an act of inducing fear and anxiety in order to manipulate women emotionally.

This leads to another area that needs to be addressed: the expansion of the CPC’s into other services for women. They are now putting great emphasis on post-abortion counseling, and have a training program for volunteers to counsel women based on scripture and the supposed symptoms of PAS.

All the volunteer training sessions stress anti-feminist sentiments, which is ironic because the CAPSS organization continues to add more traditionally feminist services to their centres. At present they offer: free pregnancy tests, birth, abstinence and post-abortion counseling, rape relief counseling, battered women’s shelters, housing referrals, parenting classes, and financial, medical, and material assistance. All are offered under the guise of a feminist women’s centre, but with a very anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-right-wing conservative fundamentalist agenda. They are trying to replace and thereby wipe out the left-leaning feminist movement and all the gains made over the last forty years. Does this sound like a conspiracy theory?

Although most anti-choice pregnancy counseling centres have volunteer training, CPC training is on a different level of organization. It is more structured, taking the basic techniques and ideas from a university counseling psychology course. That makes it seem very professional and legitimate until they add in the anti-feminist, anti-choice, fundamentalist Christian ideology. For example, they compare feminist values to anti-choice values. Feminist values are labeled a "quality of human life ethic" where the value of life is based on personal attributes such as the absence of physical or mental defects, and being wanted and useful. Anti-choice values are based on the "sanctity of human life ethic" based on the fact that God created man in his own image. Feminists are portrayed not only as uncaring opportunists, but as being the opposite of what God wants us to be. This argument is based on creating an enemy using patriarchal language and name-calling—hard to fight because there are no real arguments to refute.

The frontline women volunteers at CPC’s seem unaware that their women’s centre is at the bottom of a hierarchy of right-wing conservative policies that are ultimately controlled by powerful rich white men with global agendas—but as usual, it is women’s bodies, employment, and economics that are used and manipulated. The elite conservative powers need control of women’s bodies to keep their economic policies running, and the women volunteers in CPC’s are the foot soldiers in the most basic battle: a woman’s right to control her own body. The weapons they use are words and ideas that undermine the empowerment and knowledge that has been building in the women’s movement since the 1970’s. This battle has been going on since the beginning of the most recent women’s movement of the late 1960’s. Recently however, the anti-choice movement has been making gains because the conservative right politics and power brokers who have been working to discredit feminism and the feminist denouncement of their economic policies as detrimental to women’s lives, are finding ways to shutdown the feminist agenda economically.

The CPC training is standardized into video format, with the Canadian program made at the Calgary headquarters, but there is a multinational organizing structure behind the scenes. When you see an anti-choice commercial on TV anywhere in Canada with the phone number 1-800-4-women, your call reaches a clearing centre in Ohio that directs you to the CPC closest to where you live. The Canadian CPC’s are in the process of being linked up to a 24-hour crisis help line, again out of the States, which connects you to a volunteer in your area.

The Canadian videos are supplemented with ones from the U.S. that are more specialized and extreme. The one that is shown to young girls shows an American anti-choice doctor talking to an auditorium full of high-school students about getting STD’s and HIV. She is very powerful and convincing in her message that the only safe sex is between two virgins who marry and are monogamous. Her presentation is heavy on scare tactics and religious moralism. The danger is that she dismisses all methods of protection as being useless, and promotes abstinence as the only prevention, putting young people at huge risk if they believe there is no point to using condoms or any other protection. It also recreates the 1950’s good girl/bad girl dichotomy around sexuality that is so regressive and portrays women as objects rather than participants with rights and boundaries.

A Doctor Explains Abortion is another video with a female doctor explaining abortion from the point of view of extreme anti-choice fundamentalism, while attempting to maintain an air of clinical professionalism.

Meet the Abortionists is a video of former doctors, nurses, and clerical staff from U.S. clinics who say they have found God and now must reveal the "truth." This is the one you hear about. Horror stories, truly unbelievable, complete with visuals of buckets of dead babies. How do you fight such horrific emotional manipulation? Can the truth wipe away these images? This kind of manipulation is a very powerful recruiting tactic—the shock of what you’re seeing stops the mind from thinking clearly.

Women usually first go to a CPC for the free pregnancy test, but before they can get the results they must sit with a volunteer counselor and hear about abortion. There is an immediate implication that abortion clinics do not give women the information they need to make an informed consent. The CPC manual says “Because some in the medical community are not explaining procedures adequately, CPC volunteers must take seriously the responsibility of informing all clients about the realities of abortion, as the volunteer counselor may be the only one who discusses these important issues with them.”

The young clients at CPC’s are explained fetal development using a pamphlet with the photos by Nillson, the Swiss photographer who did the fetus photographs for Life magazine. These super-enlarged images give a presence and individuality to an embryo that is invisible to the naked eye, although most of these images are actually stillbirths, not invitro. The anti-choice movement intimates an autonomy and personhood by eliminating the pregnant woman completely from the image. This contrived separation of women from the embryo is used to legitimize the argument that the embryo is not part of the women. In fact, CPC volunteers emphasize this:   The baby is separate, not part of the woman's body. As the woman’s rights and legitimacy are called into question, the notion of the fetus as the future citizenry, the future of the nation—is imbedded. This is especially strong in the overly militarized and patriotic obsessed United States. Women’s rights and citizenry begin to dissolve.

On abortion, young women are told that in Canada there are no cut-off times; a woman can have an abortion on demand right up to full-term. The first trimester methods—manual vacuum extraction, suction curettage, and D & C, are described in the manual as follows: "The suction created by the vacuum detaches the placenta from the uterine lining, dismembering the fetus and tearing the placenta into small pieces, which are then sucked through the cannula. The size of the cannula is determined by the size of the fetus at the time of abortion. Pieces of the fetus that are too large to fit through the cannula are then removed with instruments."

For methotrexate abortions performed up to six weeks, the CPC volunteer tells the women that the patient is sent home to experience the baby being passed in a sac, but the baby is fully formed and mothers often take this and bury it in their yard. While this is being described, the young women are shown plastic models of the uterus, specially made by The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children out of London England. There are models for four stages of pregnancy. The first is labeled four weeks and has a tiny baby about two inches long, with opaque flesh and tiny arms and legs. On the back of the model it says this is magnified by a factor of eight, but that bit of information is not told to the women. The CPC manual says: "By 9 weeks after fertilization the body is virtually complete. The arms, legs, fingers, toes, and internal organs of the fetus are present and functioning. Changes subsequent to the 9th month are primarily changes in size rather than in appearance."

These are the risks that are detailed by the CPC volunteer for a first-trimester pregnancy: cervical tearing and laceration, perforated uterus with subsequent damage to other internal organs, scarring of the uterine lining, infection, shock, anesthesia toxicity, retained tissue or incomplete abortion causing high fever, infection, cramping, heavy bleeding, and post-abortal syndrome. The latter is an enlarged tender boggy uterus retaining blood clots that if not treated promptly can cause sepsis, excessive blood loss, and possible hysterectomy. They are also told to expect possible infertility—"you may never be able to have another baby."

Second and third-trimester abortions are described in horrific detail, inferring that the doctors who perform these procedures must be heartless monsters. The CPC manual displays extreme prejudice and deception in their descriptions.

There are lots of very official looking pamphlets used at CPC’s. The morning after pill, primarily used to inhibit ovulation is described this way:  "…may act by altering fallopian tube transport of sperm and or egg or by altering lining of the uterus. When this happens, a 6-day-old baby cannot stick to the uterine lining so he or she is discarded by the body in the menstrual flow. By redefining pregnancy to claim it starts only at implantation in the uterus, a drug company can claim that MAP prevents pregnancy rather than accurately describing the possibility of a chemical attack on an existing human being."

In Vancouver and BC, the CPC’s are influenced and directed by the anti-choice movement in the U.S. The Canadian training package that is created and sponsored by the Christian Advocacy Society is complemented with anti-choice films, pamphlets, and books created in the U.S. These are graphic and highly misrepresentative of the procedures and of the development of the fetus during pregnancy.

The strong anti-feminist rhetoric in the CPC's, along with the expansion of the services offered by these fundamentalist Christian organizations, is a troubling trend. It maps out a clear connection between the powerful, political right-wing and the funneling of monetary support to these frontline centres that can connect with and influence women in poverty and women minorities. At the same time, their activities siphon off the funding and political agenda of the feminist movement who have in the past been the only voice to speak up for the rights of poor and minority women, and confront the conservative right-wing social and economic policies.

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