Jay Belsito had a personal experience with a crisis pregnancy clinic (CPC) in St. Paul 16 years ago. She remembered walking in as a teenager because it offered free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds.
“They did give me a fake ultrasound, and they did try to incentivize me to watch propaganda videos to try and give me cash, which I really needed at the time as a teen parent,” Belsito said. “That was a really traumatizing experience.”
On Saturday, two sides of the health and equity issue of abortion access stood at the intersection of 21st and Chicago avenues in Minneapolis.
“Our life, our bodies,” shouted people who were protesting a relatively new CPC behind them. People with groups like the Minnesota Abortion Action Committee and UnRestrict Minnesota got together to raise awareness of what CPCs are and what they say are the dangers they create for communities.
Many people say CPCs deceive vulnerable people in attempts to sway their decision against getting an abortion. First Care, the center being protested this past Saturday, is part of New Life Family Services, which according to its website, “exists to honor the sanctity of human life by assisting clients with life-affirming decisions with the love and compassion of Christ.”
CPCs outnumber abortion clinics by an 11 to 1 ratio, according to a recent study. First Care in Phillips offers pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, decision-making counseling, parenting support, education, and connections to social workers, according to Amanda Salmon, director of client care at First Care.
The practices and recommendations of many CPCs nationwide have been deemed medically inaccurate. In August, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison issued a consumer alert urging people to be wary of CPCs.
“I want to alert Minnesotans that crisis pregnancy centers often do not offer the services they claim to offer, and that the information about abortion and contraception they offer may be inaccurate or misleading,” Ellison wrote in the alert.
The centers target pregnant people who are low-income, who may lack insurance – and as a result, seek free ultrasounds and pregnancy services, the alert stated.
In Minnesota, most CPCs do not have licensed physicians or registered nurses on staff. The same study found that only 20% of CPCs in Minnesota claim to have a registered nurse on staff, and only 9% claim to have a physician on staff.
“We know that some of the folks that work within these crisis pregnancy centers are not actually medical professionals,” said Abena Abraham, the campaign director for UnRestrict Minnesota, an abortion rights organization. “Some of the folks that do ultrasounds are not actually licensed ultrasound techs, and so people can be having complications with their pregnancies and are being persuaded just around not getting an abortion. So they don’t always seek proper medical care until it’s too late.”
The study found that more than 63% of the CPCs surveyed promoted false and/or biased medical claims on their websites; most often about pregnancy and abortion. It also found that around one-third of the CPCs in the study promoted “abortion pill reversal,” a treatment that claims medication abortion can be “reversed” with doses of progesterone – a practice that is scoffed at by mainstream medical organizations and has not been approved by the FDA.
With Minnesota being a refuge for many who seek the medical procedure, providers have seen an influx of people coming to the state for abortion care. Those people could walk into what seems like a medical clinic such as First Care and be persuaded against an abortion under the rouse of medical advice.
“Crisis pregnancy centers, in general, are often unregulated health facilities. They’re not a health facility in the sense of what you expect when you go to a doctor’s office because they are not a registered health facility with the medical board or with the licensing bodies of the state of Minnesota,” said Dr. Jessika Ralph, who is an obstetrician and gynecologist at Whole Woman’s Health in Bloomington and at M Health Fairview. “They don’t really have to comply with any health regulations. They can kind of do whatever they please.”
Research shows that many CPCs give medically inaccurate information. The risks of that can be tremendous on the health of both the person giving birth and the fetus, said Ralph. Medical services such as genetic screenings and ultrasounds that look for abnormalities are essential to prenatal care, according to Ralph.
Targeting vulnerable populations
Abortion rights advocates say clinics such as First Care often target people of color, who already face health inequities and barriers when receiving health care. First Care has connections to adoption organizations, which Ralph thinks is suspect when the goal is to care for the prenatal needs of clients.
At the protest, abortion rights advocates expressed concerns about misinformation targeting non-English speaking residents at higher rates than native English speakers or higher income individuals with access to alternative care.
This clinic is in the Phillips neighborhood, where around 25% of residents speak English as a second language and more than 30% of its residents have income below the poverty line, according to MN Compass.
“People are gonna think that there’s this great new resource that’s coming into their community to support them as it relates to maternal mortality, but actually, they’re gonna be coming into their community to deceive people and give them misinformation and not have them get the proper supports for pregnancy care,” Abraham said.
Before the protesters arrived, the First Care building had been vandalized with graffiti and broken windows. The people boarding the windows accused the protestors of vandalizing the property, which the protesters denied. One of the people working on the window had a visible firearm, which protesters quickly took notice of.
Across the street from where the protesters stood, around six people were watching the event, often chiming in with counter-chants. One man held a baby figurine and repeatedly exclaimed to the protesters: “These babies are people.”
Another man walked through the crowd of protesters weaving in and out while reciting prayers. At one point, he and a protester had a confrontation when she asked him to stop disrupting the speakers. While a few people walked by the protest and argued with the participants, many cars drove by and honked in support.
Ralph said by offering what appear to be free health services, CPCs sway the decisions of people who can’t always afford a doctor’s appointment.
“Often one of the reasons that people seek abortion care is that they don’t have the finances to potentially afford the things in life that are going on right now, let alone a new child,” Ralph said. “So often these places will entice people with ‘We’ll pay for your testing, we’ll pay for your prenatal care, we’ll give you a crib, we’ll give you a car seat, we’ll give you all these things, at the low cost of essentially considering adoption. And then we’ll take your baby.’ That sounds predatory to me.”
Many of Ralph’s patients have had bad experiences with CPCs, with around five to 10% of patients she sees for abortions having prior experience with those clinics according to the doctor.
“There are oftentimes where patients will say, ‘I went there first because I thought that they were a crisis pregnancy center because they offered an ultrasound.’ (Those seeking abortions) kind of get stuck, just trapped in this long visit of being persuaded into keeping their pregnancy and told all these awful things about abortion,” she said. “The patients that I have seen … they clearly experienced tons of shame, tons of stigma, misinformation and they’re just like beaten down by these individuals. It just seems like what an awful way to get medical care, to feel bad about yourself the whole time.”
The Minnesota Abortion Action Committee held the protest to inform the Phillips community of the clinic.
“It’s misleading. That’s one of the biggest harms is seeking out a diverse neighborhood; a poor, working class neighborhood, and bringing in a crisis pregnancy center that will just lie to the community,” said Ashley Taylor-Gouge, a member of the committee. “We want to make sure that the community knows that it’s there. We want to make sure that the community knows the intentions of an organization like this.”
What do advocates want?
Around one-third of Minnesota’s 90 CPCs receive state grant funds through the Positive Alternatives Grant program, which distributed about $3.4 million last year. While First Care does not receive state funding, abortion advocacy groups want to cut the funds that those CPCs receive and instead think of alternative ways funding could help people in crisis. With Minnesota Democrats having control of the state House, Senate and governor’s office, legislation has passed protecting abortion in the state. Gov. Tim Walz has proposed defunding the Positive Alternatives Grant program. However, some Democrats would prefer restructuring it.
UnRestrict Minnesota supports the Positive Pregnancy Support Act, which would shift the grant’s focus on culturally competent birthing supports that include abortion care as a part of pregnancy care. In addition, if the clinics remain, Ralph said that it’s essential to have medically-trained professionals.
“Maybe we could work on not funding these organizations with state money and instead figure out a way to help pregnant individuals find care with physicians and health experts, midwives, and prenatal care experts,” Ralph said. “What if, instead, we found out a way to offer early pregnancy assessment centers that are actual staffed health centers with physicians? That seems like a much better use of state dollars, where people could get all of this care, but without the bias.”