Crisis pregnancy centers set themselves up as innocuous “alternatives” for pregnant women, but some are just steps away from abortion clinics and frequented by some of the most infamous anti-abortion extremists.
This past January, when Scott Roeder stood trial for the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, he described his preparations for the crime.
For years, Roeder had gathered information about Tiller’s schedule and habits by showing up outside Tiller’s Wichita, Kan., clinic as a “sidewalk counselor.” At the same time that Roeder was “counseling” on the sidewalk—trying to talk women out of having abortions—he was beginning to determine if there was a “window of opportunity” that would leave the doctor exposed.
Just next door to Tiller’s clinic is a crisis pregnancy center (CPC), which appears to be a medical facility. But its main mission is dissuading women from having abortions. As a sidewalk counselor, Roeder tried to steer abortion patients away from Tiller’s clinic and over to the CPC—if he did, he explained in his testimony, that was considered a “success.”
The deceptive tactics of many of the country’s CPCs—which are estimated to total between 2,300 and 4,000 centers nationwide—have been well-documented: They often mislead women about whether they perform abortions, mimicking the style or names of abortion clinics and operating in close proximity to them. Some provide misinformation about women’s pregnancy status or due date, or suggest unproven links between abortion and cancer, infertility or suicide. Yet despite these fraudulent practices, CPCs have received millions in funding from both federal and state coffers.
CPCs have long had connections with the most extremist anti-abortion cohorts. The zealous anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, which doggedly pursued Dr. Tiller, has long urged its supporters to get involved with CPCs and sidewalk counseling. In its 1990s guide “How to Stop Abortion in Your Community,” Operation Rescue of California recommended volunteering at the local CPC and sidewalk counseling “right at the doors of the abortion mill.”
Just the presence of a CPC in the vicinity of an abortion clinic ups the potential for violence. A recent survey by the Feminist Majority Foundation of women’s reproductive-health clinics nationwide found 32.7 percent of clinics located near a CPC experienced one or more incidents of severe violence, compared to only 11.3 percent of clinics not near a CPC. (Severe violence includes clinic blockades and invasions, bombings, arson, bombing and arson threats, death threats, chemical attacks, stalking, physical violence and gunfire.)
“We, the church of Jesus Christ, are an army, and CPCs are triage, the Red Cross. They’re always in the back of the lines, and they help the wounded to get well,” explains Flip Benham, director of Operation Save America/Operation Rescue. Benham, who has been arrested many times for blockading clinics and is currently facing criminal charges for stalking an abortion doctor, himself began working with a Dallas CPC network in 1984.
Benham and Operation Rescue/Operation Save America have also printed and distributed WANTED posters with abortion doctors’ photos at the doctors’ homes and offices and in their neighborhoods—a terrorizing tactic that, when carried out in Pensacola, Fla. in the 1990s, preceded the earlier murders of two other abortion providers and a clinic volunteer. Those posters were ruled as true threats in a civil lawsuit, under the FACE Act (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances).
Meanwhile, the back lines—the CPCs—remain “clean,” says Benham. However, Dr. LeRoy Carhart, an abortion physician in Nebraska, disagrees, arguing that the camps are one and the same.
“They have two different spheres,” says Carhart. “The underlying theory of both is never let the truth stand in the way of getting your point across. If you distort facts to women, there is no difference.”
Kathryn Joyce is a journalist and author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (Beacon Press, 2009). Research assistance provided by the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project.
Excerpted from the Fall 2010 issue of Ms. Magazine.