Inside Crisis Pregnancy Centres

Women’s reproductive health has become a cultural battleground, with the right to abortion often at its controversial, heated centre. When you think about this fight, you probably conjure up images of the legislative process: politicians attempting to pass anti-choice bills through legal channels.

However, most people are unaware of the battle currently raging on the ground. Crisis Pregnancy Centres (CPCs), non-profit organizations often supported by church groups, serve as the invisible foot soldiers of the pro-life movement.

These centres, lacking medical licenses, often give biased, factually incorrect information when counselling pregnant women. Their intention? To sway women from carrying out an abortion, using any techniques necessary.

I first learned about Crisis Pregnancy Centres during my internship in the United States, at NARAL Pro-Choice. As part of NARAL’s project on exposing CPCs, myself and another colleague went on several undercover visits, posing as a pregnant university student with her supportive friend. Although I had read about the deceiving tactics the centres use, I had no idea what I’d be in for.

Counselling intended to frighten us away from abortion characterised each and every visit. There would be a brief discussion about the state of our lives, which quickly descended into the inevitable question: what are you planning to do with your pregnancy? With the sheer mention of termination as a possibility, the counsellors descended like hawks.

We were bombarded by graphic images of botched procedures and of medically inaccurate facts about how abortion causes breast cancer and infertility.

Counsellors brought up our parents, our boyfriends, arguing that they needed to have a say in the decision. Visiting these centres was not an easy task. Although I wasn’t actually pregnant, I could not help but feel vulnerable and even distraught after each visit.

When I returned to Edinburgh for the start of the semester, I wanted to see if Crisis Pregnancy Centres had permeated into Scotland.

Last month, I decided to carry out undercover visits to two centres nearby: one in Edinburgh, and one in Glasgow. To my pleasant surprise, these centres were nothing like those I visited in the United States; they provided counselling that seemed to genuinely care about my well-being, discussing abortion in a non-politicised, neutral manner.

It’s difficult to determine exactly why my experiences in the U.S. differed so significantly from mine in Scotland. The two CPCs I visited here had overt pro-life connections and direct church funding, similar to those in the United States.

The answer could lie in the fact that the tactics of Crisis Pregnancy Centres in the U.K. are becoming more well known, with the recent publication of undercover visits by major newspapers, such as The Independent and The Guardian. The exposure in the past few years could explain the need for centres to tone down their rhetoric and adopt more neutral stances.

Secondly, there has been a greater call for regulation for these centres, with prominent MPs such as Luciana Berger, Labour’s shadow health minister, condemning the practices of CPCs. Some concrete legal steps have been taken.

For example, in 2013, the Advertising Standards Authority banned several advertisements of CPCs that were deemed to be misleading. However, it is difficult to say whether this can explain why the centres in Scotland differed so significantly from those in the U.S.

What is clear, however, is that you cannot be sure about the counselling you will receive at a Crisis Pregnancy Centre. Although the centres in Scotland appeared identical in physical appearance and in terms of their online presence, my experiences were drastically different. CPCs, because of their unregulated nature, will always be a mixed bag.

Therefore, it is crucial that women have accurate medical information pertaining to reproductive health before they even get the chance to set foot into a centre.

In combination with greater public exposure, as well as legal regulation, I hope that we can combat the harmful practices of Crisis Pregnancy Centres, both here and in the United States.

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