June 5, 2023
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County works on ordinance to regulate ‘crisis pregnancy centers’

Activists and leaders in the City of Ithaca are working to draft legislation that, if passed, would regulate and provide oversight on anti-abortion centers that, among other services, counsel clients on their pregnancy options.

Veronica Pillar, Tompkins County state legislator, said that in states like New York where abortion remains legal, the fight for reproductive justice has shifted to making sure anti-abortion centers or “crisis pregnancy centers” are not fostering misinformation. Anti-abortion centers are often religiously-affiliated organizations that provide important services but may provide inaccurate information about abortion or use language that instills fear or shame around the topic. Pillar is working to draft county legislation regarding anti-abortion centers in collaboration with End Abortion Stigma, a local grassroots organization, and Robert Cantelmo, 5th Ward alderperson and mayoral candidate for the 2023 general election in Ithaca.

“There’s lots of examples of municipal ordinances and things mainly against deceptive advertising,” Pillar said. “I’m in sort of the early-mid stages learning how [anti-abortion centers] work and what can be done about them but, it’s been encouraging to see that this is a piece of the reproductive health care access fight that seems like, in this realm, local governments have a lot of power, whereas, you know, maybe some other stuff is more on the state level.”

Pillar said something she is looking into is whether oversight of pregnancy centers would be in the realm of health care or another area like communications and advertising. She said one option would be to add the responsibility of reviewing anti-abortion centers on pre-existing systems like health inspections.

“One of the concerns is like any law you pass, for it to matter there needs to be some kind of enforcement behind it,” Pillar said. “There’s already sort of procedures and routine for some overseeing body checking in with these essentially private establishments or non-government run. So, that’s a place where I think there’s some power to put in oversight with at least a little bit of teeth.”

Cantelmo — who drafted the abortion sanctuary city ordinance that was implemented July 6, 2022 — said he has also been looking toward Seattle’s legislation regulating anti-abortion counseling centers as another possibility for intervention. Seattle passed a law that prohibits anti-abortion centers from providing untrue statements or omitting information about the services they offer. Seattle’s legislation is enforced through the Department of Finance and Administrative Services’ Consumer Protection Division. Cantelmo said legislation at the city level would be discussed if the county legislation is not passed or as strong as the Ithaca community would like it to be.

“I think people really recognize that this is a very historic rollback at the federal level of human rights in this country and I think we are prepared to do what we need to do to help people both exercise the rights that they have, as well as regulate misstatements or unclear agendas that other service providers may have in the community,” Cantelmo said. “I would hope that my colleagues would tackle this issue this year. In my mind, there’s no reason to wait.”

According to a paper published in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, the first recorded instance of an anti-abortion center — often known as “crisis pregnancy centers” — was in 1967 in Hawaii. Soon after, Hawaii legalized abortion in 1970 and then in 1973 the Supreme Court passed Roe v. Wade. Then, in 1968, Birthright was founded in Canada, creating the first network of anti-abortion centers which still operate today, including Birthright of Ithaca. In 1975, the Christian Action Council formed and is now Care Net, a large umbrella organization for many anti-abortion centers in the country.

The Cortland and Ithaca Pregnancy Centers is an affiliate of Care Net and has been since its establishment in 1988. CIPC was originally called Crisis Pregnancy Center of Tompkins County and at one point, Hope House. CIPC is also a member of the National Institute of Family Life Advocates, which “exists to protect life-affirming pregnancy centers that empower abortion-vulnerable women and families to choose life for their unborn child.”

CIPC is a non-profit organization funded by private donors, grants and local churches. The official name listed on its Form 990 is Crisis Pregnancy Centers of the Finger Lakes. The center operates in Cortland and Ithaca, providing a range of cost-free services like options counseling, pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, parenting and birthing classes, limited STD testing for gonorrhea and chlamydia and community referrals. The center also provides free baby clothes, diapers and other materials. On a web page currently offline, titled “Our Statement of Faith & Principle,” CIPC stated it does not recommend, provide or refer for abortion and that it does not recommend, provide or refer single women for contraceptives.

CIPC Director Lynne Merchant-Pryor said that while the center does not give referrals for abortion or to clinics that provide abortion services, CIPC gives its clients information about all of their options.

“If you’re pregnant, you’re looking at either adoption, abortion or parenting,” Merchant-Pryor said. “We go through all of their options with them, and we make sure they leave here with information that they need to make an informed choice because it’s their decision. … But we’re not here to try to convince them one way or the other what they should choose. That’s not our role. And I think that’s a misconception that people have about pregnancy centers.”

Merchant-Pryor said the center is informed by the experiences of its clients and the difficulty they have following an abortion.

End Abortion Stigma, Planned Parenthood and Ithaca Murals collaborated to decorate an electrical box in Downtown Ithaca. ELLA TUNIS/THE ITHACAN

“We’re not trying to stop them from going [to abortion clinics] but we’re not going to give referrals to an organization that is providing a service that we see women hurting from continuously,” Merchant-Pryor said. “When you look at numbers and research on paper it’s one thing, but when you talk to people who’ve gone through it, that’s a completely different situation, right? So, when we have clients coming in, who tell us about their abortion experiences, and how much they’ve struggled with it, that’s where we get our information.”

Sira, an anti-abortion center in Florida, published an article saying that a study found, “44% of respondents regretted their decision to get an abortion.” Yet, further context was omitted as the study was based on letters from 45 women all within a specifically selected population group with “a known bias against abortion and only negative experiences were solicited.” 

Wider investigations, like a study from Social Science and Medicine published in 2020, have been conducted taking into consideration short-term negative emotions experienced after abortion that stem from the difficulty of the decision and abortion stigma. To better understand the impacts post-abortion, the study followed patients for five years after their abortion. The study found that out of 956 women, after five years post-abortion, 99% felt they had made the right decision.

Jessica Pieklo, senior vice president and executive editor at Rewire News Group, has extensive experience in legal journalism and covering topics on reproductive rights and justice as well as experience as a litigator for commercial disputes and health law. Pieklo said anti-abortion counseling centers are built on the presumption that abortion hurts people. 

“They’re pushing aside evidence and replacing it with anecdotes that advance a particular agenda and this is consistent in what the anti-choice movement does in advancing its particular point of view,” Pieklo said. “If we are going to continue to allow the deception that there is not an agenda at play to go on then the only thing that happens is that people really truly lose access to not just health care, but education and social services.”

Joan Adler, member of End Abortion Stigma, was a former pregnancy options and reproductive health counselor for the Ithaca Planned Parenthood for 30 years. She said that even after retiring, she is able to use her knowledge and skills through End Abortion Stigma’s work, fighting for safe access to abortion services.

“Everybody in the group had come of age before abortion was legal in this country,” Adler said. “And then a number of people in the group had illegal abortions. We all started out with the mission to bring those stories to succeeding generations as an impetus for people toward activism for securing abortion. And here we are.”

Adler said that because these anti-abortion centers are not designated as health clinics there is no oversight or regulation by local or state government.

“I honestly don’t understand why New York State — the country — are not auditing and reviewing [anti-abortion centers] services and looking at the personnel and looking at their level of training,” Adler said. “I mean, at Planned Parenthood, we’re audited every single year, by a number of organizations, you know, they go through our files meticulously [and] they look at our equipment.”  

CIPC is a pregnancy center which Merchant-Pryor said people can confuse as a medical facility. The difference is that CIPC does not provide internal health services which Merchant-Pryor said is why there is no need for additional oversight. All ultrasounds are conducted in a private exam room by nurses with oversight by Dr. Kathleen Gardner, a medical director who works at OB-GYN & Midwifery Associates of Ithaca. The ultrasound results are also reviewed by an outside physician. STD tests are limited to gonorrhea and chlamydia because they can be detected through urine and do not require blood draws — something only a certified health clinic could offer. All pregnancy tests provided are self-administered urine tests. 

“It’s been a while since I’ve looked at the [informational] material, but I did review the material when I accepted the directorship,” Gardner said. “As a director, it’s important to maintain quality, so, I review the quality of [ultrasounds]. Everything is reviewed by either myself or another outside physician and we’re all board-certified and members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.”

Pieklo said that even by packaging information in a way that does not neutralize the options of adoption, parenting and abortion, anti-abortion centers are taking sides. Pieklo referred to All-Options as an ideal version of a crisis pregnancy center. All-Options is a secular non-profit based in Indiana that provides comprehensive information about pregnancy, parenting, adoption and abortion as well as resources like diapers or emotional and spiritual support. While the center is based in Indiana, it offers virtual classes and many online resources.

“Some of [these anti-abortion centers] do provide services and that should be recognized,” Pieklo said. “But I think it is also important to recognize that they provide services in an ecosystem of a crisis that is of their own creation and that the services that they provide are inadequate.”

Pieklo said people need to understand there is a direct connection between the eradication of social services in the country and the proliferation of religiously affiliated health care and social services. 

In response to the Great Depression, in 1933, the Roosevelt Administration passed the New Deal which was a series of programs that robustly expanded the country’s social services provided by the government. Without the poverty-eradication tools that came out of the New Deal and were cut again in the ’60s, Pieklo said the country is falling back to reliance on religious institutions like faith-based, anti-abortion counseling centers. 

According to a 2019 study from the Pew Research Center, 54% of conservative Republicans and about 32% of moderate and liberal Republicans say the government should provide less support to those in need. The Republican Party works to scale down the role of the government to provide services which Pieklo said allows more government funding to go to religiously affiliated institutions which then use funding to provide social services.

“What [conservatives] are creating is an economy where religiously affiliated services will rise to the top regardless of what that service is,” Pieklo said. “That money used to go to agencies, to grassroots organizations, that weren’t religiously affiliated to provide those services, but that pipeline has been rerouted. … Conservatives believe [social services] is the role of charity in the church.”

Lorien Tyne can be reached at ltyne@ithaca.edu