My first pregnancy scare happened when I was 19. The night before leaving for a six-month trip to France, I had farewell sex with my boyfriend using a novelty condom of Gene Simmons's tongue. Long story short, Gene Simmons's tongue broke. (I've always hated KISS.) Early the next morning, I boarded a plane and prayed to the merciful loins of sweet baby Jesus—like atheists sometimes do when they're scared shitless and circumstances are spinning beyond their control—that I wouldn't get pregnant.
Three weeks later, my period was two weeks late. I didn't want to tell my boyfriend or mother—there was little they could do for me besides worry along. I didn't feel comfortable confiding in my devoutly Catholic host family (also, I was in France, so I was functionally mute and only semiliterate). I scoured the small supermarché in the tiny town where I lived but saw nothing resembling a pregnancy test. What I needed to find was the French equivalent of Planned Parenthood.
So I looked up the French word for "pregnant" in a phone book and jotted down a business in a neighboring town with a question mark in the ad. After class, I took a bus 20 minutes through the French countryside to a slightly larger tiny town to see if I could get a pregnancy test. When I entered the establishment, three women looked up and greeted me kindly. One spoke perfect English. I teared up. She shuffled me into a small room, where on one wall I noticed a cherubic baby Jesus smirking at me from high atop a cloud. She closed the door and asked me to take a seat. Jesus, the woman, and I sized each other up, and I wondered, What fresh hell is this?
I'd accidentally walked into a Christian adoption center instead of a medical clinic. When I told the woman that I wouldn't be giving any potential babies up for adoption—because I'd be getting an abortion—she refused to direct me to a doctor who could administer a pregnancy test.
Luckily, I found a pharmacy in town after I left the adoption center. After a macabre game of charades that involved mangling the French words for "pregnant," "baby," and "blood" while gesturing enthusiastically at my vagina, I was able to locate and buy a pregnancy test. I took it in a public restroom.
It came back negative.
For that woman at the Christian adoption center, it was more important to deny medical access that might conflict with her religious views than to help a scared teenager with no support system find the services she needed. That was the Christian thing to do.
This is what people at limited service pregnancy centers do every day with smiles on their faces. There are at least 46 such pregnancy centers in Washington State—and, to some degree, they do great work. They offer free baby clothes, diaper services, and parenting classes to many poor, young mothers.
But for women unwilling to become young mothers—nervous women who are lured into the centers for their advertised free pregnancy tests—visiting these centers can be traumatic. On their websites, brochures, and business signs, many advertise themselves as medical clinics, not Christian pregnancy centers. "Medical Clinic," read many of their business signs, followed by "Free Pregnancy and STI Testing."
But none of these centers are medical clinics—they're not medically licensed with the state. They're largely staffed by volunteers, not nurses or doctors, and their services are far from comprehensive. Some of the centers offer sexually transmitted infection testing or ultrasounds (no diagnostic analysis, just moody pictures of your insides) but no other medical care. None of them provide information about or access to birth control or condoms (just abstinence and Jesus). When you visit their websites or call to make an appointment, it's rarely made clear that these are Christian organizations. Based on anecdotal evidence, only occasionally do they voluntarily disclose before appointments that they're opposed to abortion and won't refer women to providers who offer those services.
In big cities like Tacoma and Seattle, many are strategically located next to Planned Parenthoods and real medical centers that do practice the full spectrum of women's health, including abortions. In small towns, these centers are often the nearest option for women seeking a free pregnancy test. Either way, countless women mistakenly enter these pregnancy centers seeking medical care. What they get instead is an over-the-counter pregnancy test and inaccurate sermons on the horrors of abortion.
Women's advocacy groups have lobbied the Washington State Legislature for the last two years to approve a bill that would make it clear to women what services these centers do—and don't—provide. The bill would require pregnancy centers to inform patients up front that they're powered by the Lord, not science. They don't provide medical care, they oppose any birth control except for abstinence, and they refuse to offer abortion referrals to women seeking those services. If the women's advocacy groups get their way, the "medical center" staff would have to verbally disclose these basic facts before an appointment, as well as prominently post signs in the main languages spoken in that county (think Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, or Vietnamese, as well as English).
But religious activists have been organizing to block the bill again, after killing a similar bill last year that included a requirement that centers provide "medically accurate information" to women. Religious activists blocked that bill on the grounds that it impeded their free speech rights—specifically, their right to say that HIV flies through condoms like "rice through a tennis racket," for example, as one center reportedly told a client according to Planned Parenthood.
This year, anti-abortionists have two arguments: one, that the legislation goes too far. "If a patient is allowed to bring a special civil suit because they're unhappy with an interaction, that's an impossible goal to meet," testified Anita Showalter, the director of Life Choices of Yakima. Showalter said the goal of her organization is to "support women," but then described the bill's language requirement—put there so that patients understand the kind of care they'd be getting—as "unduly burdensome." They argue the bill would put religious pregnancy centers (primarily privately funded) out of business by allowing women to press charges against centers in superior court if they don't follow the law.
Their second argument is that the bill isn't necessary—they already disclose their Christian roots and, even though they don't refer for abortion, they're happy to discuss abortion and respect a woman's right to choose it. "The center laid out all of my options, including adoption, keeping the baby, and abortion," testified Amy Thayer, a woman who got pregnant at age 17, at the bill's hearing in the state house's Health Care and Wellness Committee. Thayer decided to keep her baby after visiting a pregnancy center in Centralia.
But how, exactly, are the pregnancy centers presenting these options? Who's the victim here—the centers or the women who unwittingly enter them looking for comprehensive medical services?
I'm sitting on a baby blanket covered with dancing bears and staring at six plastic fetuses curled in brightly colored plastic wombs. I'm trying not to fidget or accidentally flip anyone off as a beautiful woman named Diane, the director of the Care Net pregnancy center in Gig Harbor, asks me a series of personal questions about my medical background and religious leanings (she stresses I don't have to answer any questions that make me uncomfortable).
I'm taking a crash course in pregnancy centers with the help of Megan Burbank, my incredibly intelligent, long-suffering, unpaid intern. Over the space of a week, Megan and I take pregnancy tests at six centers in Bellingham, Olympia, Tacoma, and the Seattle area. We don't lie—neither of us ever says we're pregnant. We just request pregnancy tests.
Gig Harbor is my first stop. I'm nervous. Also, I'm a little baffled by Diane's line of questioning. She's asking about my drug and alcohol use, about my partner's drug and alcohol use, if I have a good emotional support system in my life, how long I've been in a relationship, and if he beats me. These are the kinds of questions I would expect from a medical professional, but Diane is "just a mom and a Christian." (She does introduce me to a nurse in the hallway.) I have no idea why a pregnancy center that doesn't offer medical services would need to collect such information, but I answer honestly.
"Can you describe your relationship with God for me?" Diane says.
She presses me to elaborate.
"I pray to God when my period's late and when I'm scratching Lotto tickets."
She nods and scribbles a note on my "chart." I imagine it reads "heathen."
"And what are your plans if you find out you're pregnant today?"
"I will likely get an abortion."
Diane then asks if she can share her experiences with pregnancy and motherhood, and I consent. I admire her honesty, but her personal narrative doesn't sway my resolve. She then asks if I'd like more information about abortion before I commit to such a weighty decision. Maybe I'd like to watch a video that outlines all my options—motherhood, adoption, and abortion—while I wait for my pregnancy test results?
I go to a bathroom and pee in a cup while staring at a poster of "A Woman's Monthly Carousel." I worry a secret worry that I could actually be pregnant. When I return to the room, it seems that the fetuses have been rearranged to all stare at me with their dark, blank panda eyes, and Choice of a Lifetime is queued on the television. Diane is gone. The video informs me that if I have an abortion, my chances of dying within the year are four times greater than if I chose to keep the pregnancy. If I make it through that year alive, according to the video, my risk of getting breast cancer is likely to "increase by 50 percent." If, down the road, I do decide to have children, I might not be able to bond with them. I could also suffer for years from post-abortion syndrome (a condition dismissed by the American Psychological Association) that may lead me to contemplate suicide.
Then a woman on the video recounts her experience of getting an abortion after being forcibly raped. She says it was easier to forgive her rapist than to forgive herself for getting an abortion because "I did that to myself." The not-so-subtle subtext of the video: Have the baby. Keep it, put it up for adoption, give it to a pack of wolves to raise—anything is better than having an abortion.
Maybe it's working, because I'm genuinely panicking about the results of my pregnancy test. I'm probably not pregnant; I use birth control. But if you're sexually active, there's always the risk of pregnancy.
If you don't want to be pregnant—if you're not expecting it—even confronting that risk can be traumatic.
This is the first pregnancy test I've taken since France. I'm praying for another negative test now, in this tiny room in Gig Harbor, but my anxiety is increasing. I come from a long line of fertile alcoholics. Diane hasn't returned in 20 minutes. Processing the test takes three minutes. The video is long over.
All I'm thinking about is how I can't have a baby. I'm poor and irresponsible. I can't even remember to feed parking meters. I'd have to give up my collection of antique meat cleavers and light sockets. I want a scratch ticket to busy my sweating hands.
Diane walks back in and takes a seat next to me on the couch and shows me the results.
Having a Christian loudly announce that you're not pregnant is a rich, rare gift, sweeter than birthday cake. I tear up. We hug.
Only half of the six pregnancy centers Megan and I visit during our weeklong pregnancy test spree disclose over the phone that they don't perform or refer for abortions. None mention that they're Christian-run clinics. "We do not discriminate, judge, or lecture," says a woman with Whatcom County Pregnancy Clinic, a crisis pregnancy center in Bellingham, when I pointedly ask if the organization is Christian and if they refer for abortions. She dodges the referral question, saying only, "Come in and take a free test. It'll only take a minute and then we can discuss your options."
Christ is waiting in the waiting rooms—Bibles, crosses, and Reader's Digests everywhere. But by the time women are in those waiting rooms, most have already committed to an appointment, which is the goal.
At every center, Megan and I are faithfully given false information about abortions that is presented as fact. Their statistics come from debunked medical studies, the conservative Medical Institute, and Focus on the Family.
After receiving years of testimony from women who visited the centers and were given false medical information by the volunteer staff, the organizations Planned Parenthood Votes! and Legal Voice, a Washington-based women's law center, spent two years investigating these limited service pregnancy centers. In January, after gathering the input they'd received, the groups released a report on the deceptive practices the centers employ.
Their findings are a more detailed, thorough look at what Megan and I anecdotally encountered. According to the allegations, women were subjected to inappropriately long wait periods for pregnancy test results and were provided false or misleading information about abortion, birth control, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections. The report concludes that the centers "provide inaccurate information designed to delay women from making decisions about how to handle unintended pregnancy."
The centers often won't give women their results in writing, which they need to qualify for medical coupons or Women, Infants, and Children programs in Washington. They refuse to issue referrals for services they can't provide and morally object to. And when women visit these centers, they have no guarantee that their medical information will be kept private—again, the centers aren't obliged to follow standard HIPAA privacy regulations because they're not medically licensed businesses.
It was hard to visit these centers and not remember crying in a French bathtub at age 19, convinced I was pregnant. In times of personal crisis, it's hard to critically challenge where "facts" are coming from—especially if the person presenting them is kind and matronly and she hugs you and fetches apple juice. A woman who is emotionally overwhelmed and doesn't quite know what she's getting into is pretty easy to dupe. She might not question "facts" like the "fact" that abortion leads to suicidal thoughts, breast cancer, infertility, and death for many women. She won't be able to forgive herself. Even rape victims aren't able to forgive themselves.
It's so rare for someone who isn't in over her head—who asks informed questions or challenges these "facts"—to walk into these places that the volunteers become immediately suspicious of women like, well, me and Megan. When we politely challenged them and asked lots of questions, they asked if we were "spies from Planned Parenthood." Happened more than once. Those meetings quickly ended.
Megan Burbank contributed reporting to this story.