'Crisis Pregnancy' Clinics Mislead Clients, Critics Say

Posted: February 10, 1987

Faced with an unwanted pregnancy, the 18-year-old woman went to the Yellow Pages and found a King of Prussia agency listed under birth-control information advertising itself as the Abode Problem Pregnancy Center.

"When I told them on the phone that I wanted to terminate the pregnancy, the woman on the other end of the line said, 'No problem - just come in and see us,' " she said. And so she made an appointment for the free pregnancy test Abode offers.

"By the time I left that place, I was so nauseated I just wanted to die," she recalled.

Upon her arrival at the center in late December, the woman, a 1986 high school graduate, says she was shown a graphically explicit anti-abortion filmstrip. "Afterward, when I told them I had decided to get an abortion, they grabbed my arms and held me tight and told me I had no right to kill my baby," she said.

The woman, who spoke on condition that her name be withheld, had unknowingly sought information from a center set up by anti-abortion advocates to reach out to pregnant women. Counselors at abortion clinics and family- planning centers say that the Abode center and several others like it across the region use ambiguous or deceptive advertising to attract women and then use pressure tactics and misleading information to proselytize them against abortion.

"When Abode calls itself a crisis-pregnancy center, you have women who find them in the phone book and receive distorted information," said Shelly Miller, director of the Women's Suburban Clinic of Paoli, an abortion clinic about five miles from the Abode center. "We would prefer them to say we are against abortion rather than to give these women fallacious information."

Those who run the Abode center deny that it engages in deception. "We say we are a problem-pregnancy center - and we are," said founder Hugh McKenna. ''We take care of girls who have problem pregnancies. We are listed in the birth-control information section of the telephone book because there is no safer or more reliable form of birth control than a chaste life."

The use of any deception by anti-abortion advocates has been criticized in Pennsylvania and elsewhere by feminists, family-planning agencies and even the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

Prosecutors and pro-choice activists have obtained court orders either shutting down bogus anti-abortion "clinics" or prohibiting deceptive advertising by them in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Dallas. In New York recently, state Attorney General Robert Abrams announced an investigation into similar allegations of deceptive practices by three centers in New York City.

In New Jersey, Planned Parenthood officials say they have identified 10 ''crisis-pregnancy clinics," mostly in the northern part of the state, which are "intended to deceive people seeking abortions or likely to harass them after they leave" by telephoning parents or religious leaders.

In Delaware, Planned Parenthood executive director Robyn Menin recently took complaints about two anti-abortion centers to the state attorney general after volunteers, with urine samples from pregnant women, visited "crisis- pregnancy centers" in Newark and Wilmington.

"In both cases the women received misinformation about their due dates," Menin said. "In the first, the woman was told she had plenty of time to think about an abortion, when in fact she didn't. In the other case, they told her it was too late, when it wasn't."

The Delaware centers are affiliated with the Christian Action Council, a conservative national lobbying group with headquarters in Falls Church, Va. Carole Partridge, director of the centers, defended them in a recent interview, arguing that it was Planned Parenthood that had acted with deception by sending the false clients to the centers.

"We tell the women we are not physicians and we urge them to confirm the expected delivery date with their family doctors," Partridge said. "Our counselors are trained never to use deception over the telephone. We tell them we do not perform abortions here, but we give you information about abortion. Accurate, factual information."

In Pennsylvania, the centers have been permitted to advertise in Bell of Pennsylvania's Yellow Pages since 1983, when the state Commonwealth Court reversed a 1981 Public Utility Commission order that the directory delete the listing of an anti-abortion center in Philadelphia that had advertised as the Abortion, Birth Control and Pregnancy Testing Clinic.

TAPE RECORDING

A center with that name currently advertises in the Yellow Pages. A caller who dials its number gets a five-minute tape recording that begins: "By the time you miss your first period, your baby's heart is beating." The recording also says that "early abortion inflicts great pain on your baby" and warns that "abortion can mean death for you."

The number and address of the testing clinic can be found on Page 178 of the 1986-87 Bell Yellow Pages; on the next page, the same number and address are given for a group called Save Our Unborn Lives (SOUL) - the same organization involved in the 1981 Philadelphia court case. Representatives of the group could not be reached for comment.

The debate over the anti-abortion agenda pursued by these centers has divided even those who decry the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion citing the privacy rights of the pregnant woman.

Spokesmen for both the Philadelphia and Camden County Roman Catholic Archdioceses say they are opposed to any anti-abortion effort that involves deception.

"It has cost us a great deal, in the sense that we have lost some unity in the pro-life cause," said the Rev. Dominic Bottino, vice chancellor and ''pro-life" director of the Camden County Archdiocese, who has issued a directive asking pastors not to associate with or assist the anti-abortion centers. "More harm is done to our cause with a dishonest presentation. The greater good is to stay honest about who we are."

Abode operator McKenna, 55, an affable Norristown builder, said he founded the facility at 400 N. DeKalb St. two years ago because "I felt there had to be some place available to help the girls."

"I think abortion is the most important issue facing us today," McKenna said, comparing it to the Holocaust against the Jews. "It may be legal, but it's not legitimate. If the mother will kill her own child, what hope is left for society?"

COUNSELORS' TRAINING

As for the 18-year-old woman's contention that the clinic had falsely indicated it coud arrange for an abortion, McKenna said the counselors' training had not instructed them to make such a statement.

According to McKenna, the Abode center is an independent operation, modeled in part after centers established by the Pearson Foundation, a St. Louis organization created in 1969 to assist local groups in setting up anti- abortion counseling agencies.

The foundation provides training sessions, pamphlets, video equipment, pregnancy-test kits and a 93-page manual titled How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center.

"We have discovered over the years that a neutral name such as Abortion ABC's, Abortion Advice or Pregnancy Problem Center is the most effective way to reach these women who are pregnant and who are considering abortion," the manual says.

It was a 27-minute Pearson Foundation filmstrip with sound, titled Education on Abortion, that so upset the 18-year-old Montgomery County woman who had visited the Abode center.

"It started out showing a girl with long, blond hair asking, 'Is it really a baby?' " she recalled. "The next panel says yes, and then in rapid fire they show you fetuses that look like developed babies, and then some that are 8 months old or more that they say are bruised and dead from abortions and piled in garbage pails."

FILMSTRIP

The filmstrip also tells the viewer that guilt over having an abortion has driven "countless women to suicide," and it warns that the abortion

procedure, which it calls "a violent act against nature," carries serious risks of sterility, death and other harm to the mother. It specifically states that 27 percent of the women who have abortions suffer from fever or peritonitis; that 16.7 percent lose a pint or more of blood during the

procedure; that 4.2 percent suffer a torn cervix, and that blood clots affect 1 percent.

The statistics conflict with information provided by the national Centers for Disease Control, which has studied risks associated with abortion ever since the procedure was legalized in 1973. According to a 1982 CDC-sponsored report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, ''abortion through the 15th week of pregnancy is at least tenfold safer than childbearing. 'Natural pregnancy' is not safer for the woman than induced abortion."

A 1981 CDC study reported far lower complication rates than those mentioned in the filmstrip. Cervical injury, for example, was below 1 percent in abortions during the first three months of pregnancy, according to a survey of 200,000 patients. Also below 1 percent were the rates for hemorrhage and infection in an overwhelming majority of the survey groups.

McKenna said he was unaware that any information distributed by the center was distorted or inaccurate.

"These people apparently feel that the phrase 'right to life' means the right to lie," said Kathleen Strauser, spokeswoman at the Northeast Women's Center, an abortion clinic that has been the frequent target of protests by anti-abortion groups.

COMPLAINTS

Strauser said that her clinic and Women's Suburban Clinic of Paoli had received several complaints from patients who went to Abode expecting unbiased information and a referral to an abortion clinic, but instead were subjected to what they considered a judgmental and manipulative effort to persuade them not to terminate their pregnancies.

Miller, of the Paoli clinic, said that on two occasions, women told her counselors that Abode had violated its professed policy of strict confidentiality - in one instance contacting a woman's parents and in another,

a church deacon - to prevent an abortion. Miller would not disclose the identities of the women.

Abode volunteer counselors Nancy Malone and Betty Walsh vigorously deny that they have ever disclosed any names.

In the two years that Abode has been open, staffers have seen about 600 women who received pregnancy tests, Malone said. She estimated that as many as 200 women may have been persuaded not to abort their pregnancies, but she and others at the center could not say with certainty how many abortions had been prevented.

"We offer a Christian approach," Malone said. "We encourage a woman to carry on with her pregnancy. If they need housing, we will take them in or place them with a family. We refer them to adoption agencies if they feel they are not ready to take on the responsibilities of parenthood."

Part of the Abode approach - consistent with the tenets of the Pearson Foundation - is to counsel women to abstain from premarital sex. To those whose pregnancy test proves negative, the counselors show a filmstrip produced by the Pearson Foundation titled Chastity.

ABSTINENCE

Malone said the organization refused to give women birth-control information other than to recommend abstinence. Married women are advised not to have sex during the time of month when they are most likely to be ovulating.

The 18-year-old said she had agonized over whether she should have an abortion. "My father would have been shattered if he knew I was having sex with my boyfriend," she said.

She said she made her decision after consulting with a close friend, a middle-aged woman, who accompanied her both to Abode and to the Northeast Women's Center, where she had an abortion in early January. She was interviewed at the Women's Center in the presence of a clinic representative.

An adopted child herself, she said she could not bear to give her own child up for adoption as her mother had done.

"I don't feel the terrible guilt that they tried to make me feel," said the woman, "because the abortion was nothing like they said it would be. They shouldn't have been able to lure me in and keep me there and make me feel guilty. I mean, no one's perfect. A woman can have 30 kids, it still doesn't make her a saint."

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