Crisis Pregnancy Centres: Counselling or Coercion?

What has Austin, Texas done for you lately? Okay, if you’re a music fan, a lot, but whether or not you made it to the SXSW festival this year, you can thank them for being the second major US city to require that Crisis Pregnancy Centres (CPCs) advertise their services honestly. In the States, CPCs are not-for-profit organisations that claim to support pregnant women. In reality, research from pro-choice organisations as well as the US government indicates that many are anti-choice organisations that exist to do whatever it takes (more on this later) to ensure their clients continue their pregnancies. They rely on false advertising to lure in pregnant women seeking help with a pregnancy decision. Once they’re in, CPC “counsellors” inundate the women and their partners with misinformation with the aim of scaring them out of choosing abortion. Austin follows Baltimore, Maryland in requiring independent pregnancy advice centres to post signage stating that they do not refer for abortion or contraceptive services.

So what does the capital of the Lone Star State have to do with us here in the UK? CPCs exist around the UK, too, although their services and standards vary widely. In 2005 a Channel 5 News report found that some CPCs from London to Aberdeen use these same tactics, advertising as “pregnancy options” services or even “abortion advice services”. More recently, I decided to see for myself by “mystery shopping” the London CPC shown in the Channel 5 report. Claiming to be a student believing she was pregnant, I visited the centre. Despite my professional awareness of these organisations, nothing could have prepared me for the two hours of anti-choice propaganda I faced.

The “counsellor” talked non-stop, only occasionally asking about my feelings. She started with the physical risks of abortion, claiming, among other things, that there was a “100% chance” that I would get cancer as a result of an abortion. In the meantime, she claimed there was a 1 in 4 chance that I would become infertile. This is all assuming I didn’t die of blood loss following the abortion, another “risk” she described. Then she moved on to the emotional risks, asserting that I would become depressed, probably suicidal, and even disorganised at work (which I thought would be the least of my worries, relatively speaking). My partner would leave me, and I would lose all “maternal instinct”. The example she gave? If I saw a child about to be hit by a bus, I would feel and do nothing. Only after about an hour and a half did she turn to the “spiritual risks”, revealing the religious motivation of the “clinic”. (The “risks” described above are all inaccurate- for more information, please visit the EFC website)

Not all CPCs are created equal, and the centre I visited represents an extreme approach. But professionals we’ve trained across England confirm that anti-choice “counselling” services are rampant, terrifying and disempowering young women and men all over the country. Most CPCs would not perpetuate such extreme myths, but even less overt misinformation, such as the assertion that abortion typically causes depression or trauma (which it doesn’t), undermines the ability of women to make informed decisions about pregnancy. These techniques and misleading services target and disproportionately affect young people: feedback from young people and the professionals that support them are what motivated EFC to take an interest in this issue in the first place.

What can be done? Under current regulations, not much. Although services that provide abortion and refer for abortions are monitored and must follow strict guidance prohibiting directive counselling, CPCs are not. This is because currently in the UK, “counselling” per se is unregulated.

The Austin decision, however, should give us some ideas. First, the decision followed a comparable rule in Baltimore, which came following research by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland. Unlike the US, Canada, and Ireland, comprehensive research on CPCs in the UK has never been undertaken. If you’ve had a great or not-so-great experience with a local service, let us know by e-mailing me at kate [at] Second, the Austin decision doesn’t actually shut CPCs down- it simply requires them to be honest about their ethos and approach. Each year, EFC trains thousands of professionals across the country on supporting young people around pregnancy choices. We show the Channel 5 video in each area, encouraging professionals to find out what services really provide before sending their young clients there. Finally, EFC offers professionals the best practice alternative. The Best Practice Toolkit: Pregnancy Decision-Making Support for Teenagers is chock full of guiding principles, practical tools and factual information to support the professionals young people trust.

Kate Gilbert is Projects Manager at Education For Choice.

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