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Undercover volunteer poses as pregnant at 'fake women's health centers' to gauge service

“Are you feeling like you’ve made a mistake?” she said when my pregnancy test flashed positive. I was in a fake women’s health center in Southern Maryland, being “counseled” by a woman with no medical qualifications. “Yeah,” I mumbled, knowing I wasn’t pregnant.

I was part of an undercover investigation into how these fake health centers — also known as “crisis pregnancy centers” — push anti-choice propaganda. Volunteers posed as young women seeking pregnancy tests and information. I often posed as an 18-year old college student who had just had sex with her boyfriend for the first time. For months I visited fake clinics across Maryland, carrying urine samples from a pregnant volunteer, passing pregnancy tests and receiving “counseling.” The investigation culminated in NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland’s Report.

The counselor was disappointed that I was not religious and had “only known [my boyfriend] for a short amount of time” before having sex. She assured me that I was ready for a baby and that my parents would help me financially. When I brought up finishing my degree, she exclaimed that, “You can always go back to school,” but that I would regret “[getting] rid of my baby.” That’s a tactic fake clinics use: They refer to fetuses as babies, making it easier to call abortion cruel.

These faith-based centers use anti-choice rhetoric and false/misleading information to steer people away from birth control and abortions. Many use uniforms and medical history forms to create an air of medical legitimacy. They’re often located near abortion providers to confuse people and delay access to abortion care. Not only is this repugnant, but delays in care can be costly and dangerous to patient health. However, for low-income or vulnerable individuals with few nearby alternatives, the promise of a free pregnancy test and counseling seems too good to pass up.

The Trump administration is facilitating the spread of fake health centers while simultaneously threatening practices that offer comprehensive reproductive health services. A recent attack came in a proposed rule change on Feb. 22nd to the Title X national family planning program that provides access to reproductive health care to low-income individuals. The final draft denies providers Title X funding if they offer referrals to patients seeking abortions. It also requires that providers maintain physical and financial separation from abortion providers. This would strip Title X funding from providers that offer or refer for abortions, eliminating critical funding for the other services they provide.

Furthermore, this change could give Title X funds to centers that provide abstinence-only or adoption counseling, overturning previous requirements that they provide a broad range of contraceptive options and neutral information. The rule encourages promotion of natural family planning and abstinence, rather than providing medically approved contraception. The administration clearly seeks to shift funds from comprehensive reproductive health centers to ideologically-based centers. These fake centers thrive on the lie that they provide unbiased counseling and comparable services; Title X funding would further legitimize their deception.

In Southern Maryland, I saw a young woman in her teens, sitting alone in the waiting room and clutching the pamphlets her “counselor” gave her. I wanted to catch up with her, but she left by the time my appointment ended. I think about that young woman all the time. I am horrified that she had an experience similar to mine. Instead of receiving counseling about my options, I was chided, judged and given false information by a volunteer with no qualifications. I was told birth control almost never works and I shouldn’t have had sex outside of marriage. I was given a fake HIPAA form. I was made to feel selfish for asking about abortion. I was told abortion was a “risky procedure” that would make me infertile. I was told abortions lead to suicide. I was told fetuses feel pain at six weeks. The information they gave me was blatantly wrong; I was lied to at every turn.

Any center that judges individuals seeking care and gives them false information does not deserve any federal funding. For individuals needing a pregnancy test and support, these fake centers offer help but deliver deceit. It is immoral and inconceivable that these fake health centers will rip funding away from legitimate reproductive health clinics. Giving federal funds to overtly religious, anti-science and deceitful fake women’s health centers would be an insult to the mission of the Title X family planning program.

Anna Johnson is a graduate student in Washington D.C. You can reach her at aj579043@gmail.com.

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