NEW BEDFORD — In Southeastern Massachusetts, which has been termed an abortion desert, women must travel 30 to more than 50 miles for an abortion provider. But pregnancy centers, which critics say are run by anti-abortion groups, are closer to home — including locations in New Bedford and Fall River.
Though Massachusetts has codified and expanded access to abortion, anti-abortion centers — which encourage people to continue their pregnancies and sometimes have religious affiliations — outnumber abortion clinics and providers eight-to-three within an approximate 50-mile driving distance for New Bedford residents.
These centers, which abortion and reproductive rights advocates also call “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) or “fake clinics,” often advertise free services, ranging from pregnancy tests and counseling to ultrasounds, prenatal care, diapers and social support. But advocates and physicians say CPCs create barriers to abortion access and can be harmful to clients through deceptive and inaccurate practices.
Amid this concern and on the heels of Friday’s Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the anti-abortion organization Massachusetts Citizens for Life said it plans to help establish an “expanded network of services, suppliers and support resources” on a “wider, more comprehensive scale than is currently available in Massachusetts.”
“The overarching goal of this initiative will be to assist and support women with unplanned pregnancies and their babies, to relieve their anxiety so they can welcome their newborn to the wonder of life, and to reassure them that they are not alone,” wrote Patricia Stewart, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, in a statement to The Light.
Critics cite inaccurate test results
Crisis pregnancy centers have come under fire for deceptive advertising, pressure tactics and inaccurate testing.
“I can’t tell you the number of patients I’ve seen who have had inaccurate ultrasounds done [at CPCs],” said Dr. Luu Ireland, an obstetrician and gynecologist with UMass Memorial Health and Planned Parenthood. “It is very common that I see a patient for abortion care who is relieved she is not as far along as she was told at a CPC.”
Aside from the gestational age being incorrect on the sonogram, Dr. Ireland said she’s also seen sonograms brought by patients from CPCs where someone had written “Hi Mom” or “Nice to meet you” on them.
The city of Somerville established a “first of its kind” ordinance in the state to ban CPCs this March, the Tufts Daily reported, defining them as deceptive, limited service centers that do not directly provide or refer clients for abortions or emergency contraception.
The town of Amherst in April was weighing a similar action to prohibit limited services at CPCs due to concerns with deceptive advertising, but it was withdrawn by a councilor this month. Neither communities have CPCs.
At some of these centers, neither the staff nor the center is medically licensed and does not bill for services, meaning they most likely cannot be held to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which requires and sets patient confidentiality standards, a reality that concerns some advocates.
“These centers are often anti-abortion organizations that are working to dissuade and manipulate pregnant women,” said Taylor St. Germain, communications director of Reproductive Equity Now, a Boston-based organization.
According to St. Germain, crisis pregnancy centers outnumber “legitimate reproductive health clinics” three-to-one in Massachusetts.
Birthright operates from New Bedford church
On Summer Street, sitting within the Saint Lawrence rectory and next to the church, is the newly relocated Birthright of New Bedford, a local chapter of an international unplanned pregnancy organization with centers across the country.
It describes itself as “interdenominational” and “non-political,” but others have classified it as being affiliated with or running CPCs.
Colette Costa, who identified herself as the co-director, told The Light she had no comment when asked about the mission of the organization and the services Birthright of New Bedford provides. She said she was not comfortable answering questions based on what has been going on following the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
After The Light emailed Birthright’s main address with questions about HIPAA, licensure and any plans to increase locations following the Supreme Court decision, Costa called and said they had no comment to any of the questions, stating “our safety is an issue.”
An anti-abortion pregnancy center in Virginia was vandalized last weekend with graffiti and smashed windows. Abortion providers have also been the target of attacks.
The Light was unable to ask follow-up questions, including about safety concerns, as Costa hung up during the call.
According to Birthright’s web page for New Bedford, services include “friendship, love and hope” for pregnancy, childbirth, adoption, prenatal care, and childcare, as well as referrals for “medical support” and housing, with no mention of abortion. Free resources include pregnancy tests, maternity items and a 24/7 helpline. Asked if Birthright refers people for abortions, a person on the helpline said they do not.
Barrier to abortion access
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists considers CPCs a barrier to abortion access, and states they “operate to dissuade individuals from seeking abortion care,” often by providing inaccurate medical information, and “asserting false links between abortion and breast cancer, infertility, mental illness, and other misinformation.”
Dr. Ireland said she has seen patients who said they were told by CPCs that an abortion could give them breast cancer or that it carries a high risk of death.
Massachusetts had 29 CPCs as of 2018, according to researchers from the University of Georgia, who mapped the centers across the country. Reproductive Equity Now also created a list of CPCs for New England states, and listed 29 for Massachusetts.
According to a review of state data from March, several of the pregnancy centers are not listed as licensed health care facilities and clinic services, whereas hospitals, treatment centers and abortion clinics are licensed or certified.
A spokesperson with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said by email that CPCs often do not meet the state’s legal definition of a “clinic” in terms of the services they provide, which then precludes them from being licensed as such.
Further, if a CPC meets the definition of a clinic but is owned and controlled by one or more practitioners, it is exempt from licensure as a clinic based on the state’s definition, the spokesperson said.
Your Options Medical, located in Fall River, is not a licensed healthcare facility, per the state’s data. A Woman’s Concern, Inc., however, which does business as Your Options Medical, is licensed for an address in Revere, as well as a mobile van.
CPCs often go by several different names, the New York Times reported, and have different websites for clients and donors or volunteers, the former which can hide a religious affiliation.
Teresa Larkin, the executive director of Your Options Medical, said the organization is a “pregnancy confirmation center,” meaning they confirm pregnancy through testing and ultrasound; she said she prefers that term when asked if she considers the centers to be CPCs.
Your Options Medical has four locations and two websites: “youroptionsma.org” and “partnersofyom.org.”
The former lists three options -– abortion, adoption and parenting — and advertises “no cost” and confidential services including pregnancy testing, ultrasound and options counseling. Larkin confirmed the services are free, and that they do not provide or refer for abortions.
“It’s pretty easy for them to find abortion providers,” she said, adding staff don’t want to refer someone to a place where they don’t know the level of treatment.
The second website cites a Bible verse on the home page and includes links to “ministry overview” and the board of directors, which lists doctors, nurses and pastors. Larkin, when asked about the two sites, said most centers and nonprofits have a patient-facing website and a donor-facing website.
While the client site lists abortion under “options,” a review of blog posts and communications on the “donor-facing” site shows anti-abortion views. Larkin said she wouldn’t say they’re “anti anything” when asked if the organization was anti-abortion.
“We’re for women,” she said. “We just believe that having no choice but abortion is not really fair to women… We believe in helping women and that’s why we do what we do.”
Larkin said the organization has no affiliations or partnerships with religious organizations. Asked about pastors or religious leaders serving on the organization’s board, Larkin said the composition of the board was “more private.”
The board, however, is listed online and includes a few pastors, which Larkin confirmed.
Larkin also appeared in an unlisted YouTube video last year to announce the opening of Your Options Medical’s Brookline center, noting the location was near two abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood.
“We are truly bringing light into a very dark area,” she said to the camera.
She added they are not a religious organization, but that there is a “spiritual component” to the work they do, and that most people who work there are Christians.
St. Germain called crisis pregnancy centers a “serious threat” in Massachusetts.
“I think we’re entering into really uncharted territory,” St. Germain said of the overturning of Roe. “Information about legitimate reproductive healthcare is going to become more confusing than ever before.”
Larkin said people who call Your Options Medical a fake clinic are “not interested in facts” and that “there should be room at the table for all of us,” stating their centers provide services and support to women.
Dr. Ireland said she is “absolutely” concerned about CPCs growing in number in Massachusetts, stating they are well funded and harmful to the people who end up visiting the centers and leaving with fear from misinformation, stress due to inaccurate tests or guilt over the decisions they make for their pregnancies.
“On a regular basis, I see the risks of pregnancy,” she said. “I know how happy and joyful a delivery can be. And I also know how scary and life-threatening a pregnancy can be… We have seen in other countries, in modern day, women who died from complications because an abortion was not able to be performed.”
Reproductive Equity Now is working to educate the public on where they can find abortion clinics, and conversely, CPCs as they call them. It’s their aim that the guide will serve not only New England residents, but also people traveling from states where abortion has or will become illegal.
“Massachusetts can be this kind of beacon for reproductive freedom,” St. Germain said. “As part of that, we’re going to have to ensure people know how to access that care.”
Email Anastasia E. Lennon at firstname.lastname@example.org.