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What I Learned at The Crisis Pregnancy Center

Issue 273

An inside look at how anti-abortion activists use misinformation and scare tactics to deter pregnant women seeking an abortion.

Yastika Guru Aug 19

Click here to read “An Abortion Doctor’s Story.”

EMC Pregnancy Center is a three-minute walk from Third Avenue-149th St. station, located in “the Hub” — a dense, commercially busy area in the South Bronx. While a crowd waits for the walk sign to cross the street, one man briefly struggles as his wheel pops out of his wheelchair. By the time I go to help him, he has expressionlessly jammed the wheel back in and hurried across the street. Everyone is in a rush. Few pay heed to the clusters of street vendors selling jewelry and sunglasses. The July heatwave is especially searing on the Bronx pavements. 

Walking down the East 149th St. bustle, it’s hard to notice a little blue sign inviting pregnant people in. 

The pregnancy center shares the building with a tattoo studio. When you enter, the walls are covered in loud calligraphy fonts and tattoo samples. Camouflaged by the designs of sample tattoo designs of roses with thorns, devil-angel sex and dominatrixes, another blue sign reads, “FREE PREGNANCY TEST. NO APPT. NECESSARY. CONFIDENTIAL COUNSELING.”

EMC Pregnancy Center is a crisis pregnancy center. A young woman in her 20s opens the door and introduces herself as Felix when I knock. After an eager welcome, a pregnancy test is administered. The Quick and Clear pregnancy test used by EMC is supplied by Heritage House ‘76, Inc., which claims to be “the largest supplier of Pro-Life, Pro-Abstinence, and Pro-Family materials for over 45 years.”  

When two purple lines on the stick indicate pregnancy, Helix’s work truly begins. “For me to even get this job, I had to watch abortion videos. Very traumatizing,” she says, almost like we’re gossiping. “I do not recommend.” 

Various claims are made at EMC Pregnancy Center. “The abortion could mess up your system. You might not be able to get pregnant again. It’s really painful and traumatizing,” Helix says. She hands me a pamphlet that reads, “Many women have been damaged for life as a result of their legal abortion.” It also says that abortion causes “thwarted maternal instincts which may lead to child abuse or neglect later in life…” and that during a saline abortion, the baby “convulses in pain for the hour or so that it takes for the solution to do its deadly job. You then go into labor and give birth to a dead baby.” With the suction method, “your baby is torn to pieces.” 

“An abortion in the early months of pregnancy when estrogen levels are high predisposes a woman to getting breast cancer,” claims one of EMC’s pamphlets.

(Contrary to these claims, first-trimester abortions pose virtually no long-term risks of such problems as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage or birth defects. Experts also agree that abortion does not cause mental-health problems for women or post-abortion syndromes similar to PTSD. Medical induction abortions, which do involve going into labor to deliver a fetus (in the hospital and with medication), are generally administered if the pregnancy is after 16 weeks and are mostly for pregnancies with severe fetal abnormalities or that pose a danger to the mother.)

Framed pictures of babies smile back at me when I glance up from the pamphlet. Helix continues to explain to me how bad of a decision it is to have an abortion. “Look, it’s not my job to tell you what to do, and I respect your choices. But, as a woman and a Christian, I really think you shouldn’t get an abortion,” she said, assuring me that if my concerns were financial, I needn’t worry. “Most people who are abortion minded, it’s because maybe they’re not financially stable or they have a lot going on. … We provide diapers. We check in on you. We give you lots of free stuff, like baby clothes.”

If EMC is well-funded, it isn’t evident in the abortion prevention center’s humble appearance — dim, cluttered and dusty with sparse furnishings.  

Helix hands me another pamphlet as she leads me out of the office. “What They Won’t Tell You at the ABORTION CLINIC…” reads the headline, followed by, “This is a tough decision you have to make, but please be mature. Only an immature person thinks of herself alone.” And so on.

Once she closes the center’s door behind me, I’m offered tattoos by the people sitting outside Bronx Ink. The tattoo artists don’t seem to realize where I’m coming from. 

A crisis pregnancy center and a tattoo parlor share a building in the South Bronx. “Free Abortion Alternatives/walk upstairs/2nd floor” reads a small sign above a “Tattoo Artist Wanted” posting. Photo: Olga Fedorova.

•   •   •

Here’s the catch — I was not and am not pregnant. Appearing to be pregnant is the only way to access these centers, so The Indypendent went undercover. A friend of a friend was pregnant, and luckily, the crisis centers’ employees don’t follow you into the bathroom when you’re extracting a urine sample from your handbag.

Even in New York state, where abortion was fully protected as a constitutional right in 2019, there are more “crisis” centers than actual abortion clinics. The EMC pregnancy center was founded in 1985 by Christopher Slattery, a former advertising executive who switched careers after talking a 15-year-old girl from Crown Heights out of getting an abortion. The group has run 20 clinics across the city over the years.

EMC does employ a licensed medical professional, a nurse and a trained ultrasound tech, Slattery told Brooklyn Paper, which he says proves his operation is not a “fake clinic.” Like many other crisis centers, Slattery intentionally sites his in close proximity to abortion clinics; the Downtown Brooklyn location is in the same building as a Planned Parenthood.

Over the years, a slew of lawsuits and fines have been filed against Slattery, most prominently by a succession of attorneys general of New York, including Letitia James in 2021.

Here’s the catch — I was not and am not pregnant. Appearing to be pregnant is the only way to access these centers, so The Indypendent went undercover.

The openings and closures of crisis pregnancy centers are tracked nationally by ­crisispregnancycentermap.com. In 2020, the site counted more than 2,500 centers across every state — at least three for each remaining abortion clinic. With the overturning of Roe, there have been countrywide reports of CPCs being overwhelmed by an influx of new patients with no other options. A rising percentage offer ultrasounds, even if staff disguised as medical personnel might not actually be authorized to perform them. 

State attorneys general have mostly declined to go after CPCs that mislead women. Because most centers are not licensed as medical facilities, they are generally exempt from state and federal laws on patient privacy and medical ethics.

•   •   •

In addition to EMC Pregnancy Center, I visited two other crisis pregnancy centers. One was Avail NYC, which goes out of its way to appear non-religious and non-political. Their website says, “We decided to ditch the labels of political rhetoric and all the associations they carry. We’re committed to client care. You have options, and we’re here to help you find one you feel confident about. No politics.” Their center is located a half-block away from Times Square on W. 45th St.

There are copies of The New Yorker and ­National Geographic in Avail’s waiting room, along with Stash tea bags, a hot-water dispenser and a bowl of Hershey’s candy and chocolate. The flowers on the table are hot pink and fake. When my turn came, I was escorted into another room with comfortable sofas and cushions where an employee, Chelsea, discussed my options. The trash can in the room had a positive pregnancy test in it, evidence of the one other visitor before me. Chelsea spoke to me with furrowed expressions of concern and empathy and emphasis that I had come to the right place. “This is exactly what we are here for. To sort through your values and what you want. There’s no right or wrong thing to do,” she said.

Of all the centers I contacted, Avail was the most demonstrably “neutral.” Abortion was seriously acknowledged as an option. Visitors are handed an “Ottawa Personal Decision Guide” which grids out three options — parenting, abortion and adoption — and helps you reason out the benefits costs of each choice. That being said, their stance toward any uncertainty on my part was to nudge me away from choosing to have an abortion. Chelsea described her past experiences with post-abortion support and counselling. “If people are torn up about the abortion beforehand, it’s exacerbated afterwards. If you have feelings against abortions, I would say you should lean into that, listen to it.”

“If you’re feeling worried about how things are going to be after you get an abortion, I want you to lean into that instinct,” she said. “Even if that means you disagree with your family and boyfriend. If you want to have this child, you can do it, you’ll make it work. Your family and partner are not pregnant. They don’t know what you’re going through, especially with an abortion. I want you to feel empowered to make the decision to parent. There’s ways to do it. There’s resources. We’ll help you.” What had started out as a neutral approach began to fall in-line with the notions espoused by the other centers and to feel more coercive. 

“You’re obviously an ambitious person with dreams and goals. Sometimes an unexpected pregnancy and having a child can push you in a positive way. That [sense of] responsibility kicks in.” 

•   •   •

Avail provided robust information about what the adoption process would look like, specifying that as a birth mother, one would be in full control selecting adoptive parents and setting up the parameters of the adoption and future relationship with the child. 

Even in New York state, where abortion was fully protected as a constitutional right in 2019, there are more “crisis” centers than actual abortion clinics.

Different CPCs engage in different degrees of misinformation and misrepresentation. For example, Pregnancy Help on West 14th St. does not blatantly lie to its visitors or explicitly reject abortions. Instead, abortions are discussed cryptically and the only information provided is from an animated video that portrays various abortion procedures in graphic detail. 

The door to Pregnancy Help is inside the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The employee I interact with, Nicole, was sweet. She sat on a chair across the table from me in a room with pink furniture and a fireplace. After we talked about my situation, she said we were going to watch a video on abortion so that I could make a fully-informed decision. She set up her phone in front of me on the coffee table and we watched it together. 

The video claimed that it is possible to reverse the effects of an abortion pill and uses language such as “force the dead baby out of the woman’s uterus.” I was distressed when I heard the film’s narrator say, “the woman will often sit on a toilet as she prepares to expel the child, which she will then flush. She may even see her dead baby. If she looks carefully, she might be able to count its fingers and toes.” 

Nicole emphasized repeatedly that abortion is “very serious,” no matter how easily accessible it is in New York City, and needs to be thought about very carefully. This was the main point driven home at every center, regardless of how explicitly anti-abortion they were. 

•   •   •

Avail and Pregnancy Help followed up with me via text message. Chelsea from Avail messaged me reiterating that they’re here for me, but when I told her I was leaning towards getting an abortion, she urged me to visit again and said that they could offer “financial resources” if I was stressed about not being able to afford raising a child.

Nicole from Pregnancy Help persistently texted me about when I’d visit next, how conversations with my family were going and the necessity of getting an ultrasound — it’s important to them that you hear the baby’s heartbeat.

While I didn’t give my phone number to EMC Pregnancy Center, and as such did not experience its follow-up process, EMC professed the most blatant lies.

“An abortion in the early months of pregnancy when estrogen levels are high predisposes a woman to getting breast cancer,” claims one of their pamphlets. “By the time you miss your second period, your baby’s brain is divided into three parts — one to experience emotion and understand language, one for hearing and one for seeing.” 

In fact, exhaustive reviews by panels convened by the U.S. and British governments have concluded that there is no association between abortion and breast cancer. And, a fetus is essentially a ball of tissue for the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. 

I also reached out to EMC centers in Brooklyn and Queens. “Hey, is this EMC?” I would ask. “I was wondering if I could stop by today… I’m pretty sure I’m pregnant and I don’t know what to do,” 

When I told them I only wanted to come in for the test and some counseling, I received a brusque response.   

“Look, you can do what you want to do, but we really strongly suggest the ultrasound” said the employee of a Brooklyn EMC who on the other end of the line. “It’s critical for your health and the baby’s health.” 

“What do you plan to do?” The woman on the other end of the line pushed. “Are you willing to keep the baby or are you abortion minded?”

Similar  questions have continued to light up my phone. When I finished writing this article, another notification from Pregnancy Help chimed. 

“Hi again Jessica! Just checking in. How are you doing today?” goes the message, with ominous cheeriness. This is the seventh message I have received from Pregnancy Help in the two weeks since I visited, despite my clarifying that I was leaning towards an abortion. I’m not sure how to respond. 

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