by Neil deMause
It was September of 1991, and thing were looking up for foes of the bogus clinics that anti-abortion groups had set up by the thousands in the ’70s and ’80s. National media had sent reporters armed with hidden cameras into the fake clinics to record the gory videos and moralistic “counseling”; in Washington, Rep. Ron Wyden (D-OR) held a day of long-awaited hearings into the problem of bogus clinics’ misleading advertising. A few weeks later, Wyden triumphantly announced that the nation’s Yellow Pages publishers had agreed to purge misleading ads from their listings within the next two years. The new policy, he said, “should clean up what has become a quagmire of deception, abuse, and bad dealing by some of the more radical anti-abortion groups.”
Two years later, the quagmire is still with us. There continue to be just as many fake clinics in operation – estimates range from 1,500 to over 3,000. And despite the announced cleanup, Yellow Pages across the nation remain riddled with ads for facilities that promise free pregnancy counseling but deliver only anti-abortion lectures. With fewer than 600 genuine abortion providers in the nation, this means that a trip to the phone book for help is more likely than not to end with an anti-abortion activist on the other end of the line. “If Tupperware put an ad in saying they were Farberware, nobody would have any qualms about making them change,” complains Leslie Sebastian of Planned Parenthood of San Diego. “The average consumer [seeing such ads] is going to think this is a pro-choice, neutral agency.”
The Strategy of Deception The first phony climes began popping up in the 70s, after the Pearson Foundation, a Missouri-based anti-abortion group, issued a 93-page how-to manual for launching what they dubbed “crisis pregnancy centers.” By the mid-’80s, individual operators, with the assistance of national groups like the Christian Action Council (CAC), began setting them up g by the hundreds. The National Institute of Family Life I Advocates (NIFLA) currently claims a mailing list of 3,200 3 anti-abortion centers.
These centers’ operations are by now well documented. A typical story is told by “Nicole,” a student from Manhattan who called the number under a Yellow Pages ad for “Free Pregnancy Services.” When she asked the price for an abortion, the staffer replied, “I can’t give it to you over the phone, but I have a doctor here who can talk to you about that.”
Once at the phony clinic, Nicole was given a standard store bought home pregnancy test, and ushered into a room equipped with a TV. There she was shown “A Matter of Choice,” a graphic video in which a woman gasps and shakes in apparent pain during a violent-looking abortion procedure. (When the friend who accompanied Nicole loudly objected to the video, the counselor asked her to leave the room.) Afterwards, says Nicole, “The woman said, ‘Look, if you can’t handle this, maybe there’s no way you can go through with this abortion.’ And I said, ‘Is this a worst-case scenario, or is this how it is?’ She said, ‘No, this is how it is. Look, we can set up housing for you if you want. You’re a white girl, I suppose that the father of this child is white. It’s in demand. You’re going to make so many people happy with this new white baby.'”
Seeing that Nicole was upset, the counselor offered another video – this one, she recalls, a “sickly sweet” vision of four women who had continued their pregnancies and were happy with their decisions. Finally, the counselor revealed that Nicole’s test was negative, but suggested she return for a checkup to ensure she was not pregnant, and urged her not to discuss her situation with her friend.
Eluding the Law It’s easier to document the problem than to take action against individual operators. “One of the problems is you don’t have a single organization to go after,” explains Steve Jenning, a House staffer on the 1991 fake clinic hearings. Filing hundreds of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) actions for false advertising “would take an awful long time and would be hellaciously expensive,” says jenning. “The FTC would probably have to quit doing everything else.”
Moreover, even getting the FTC involved would require new legislation, since most counterfeit clinics are non-profit, and so out of the FTC’s jurisdiction. And many states have been equally reluctant to take on consumer fraud claims: in Washington, the state attorney general ruled that since no money changed hands at a fake clinic, no regulatable “commerce” took place.
Given all this, fake clinics’ ads began to seem the likeliest target. “We thought that was the way most of the people who had been ‘injured’ had originally made their choices,” says Jenning, “and that if we could get something in the Yellow Pages that gave them a sound idea of what they were getting into at the front end, there would be less trouble at the back end.”
Accordingly, Wyden’s hearings focused on pushing the nation’s Yellow Pages publishers to clean up their act. The Yellow Pages Publishers of America responded with new voluntary recommendations for its members: henceforth, fake clinics would be segregated into an “Abortion Alternatives” category, with an accompanying disclaimer that they do not perform or refer for abortions. The new policy would be phased in over two years, as new editions of local directories came into print.
Yellow Pages Listings Are Key Representatives of both phony clinics and genuine providers have noted some impact. Fake-clinic advocate Tom Glessner of NIFLA notes what he calls the “disturbing trend that fewer and fewer abortion-minded women are coming into the centers. The centers are seeing more and more the women who have decided to carry to term from the beginning, where abortion isn’t an issue.”
Jenning says a hotline set up by his office to pass complaints on to the Yellow Pages has “worked pretty well. A couple of the major groups that have been following bogus clinics have reported back to us saying that when the problem’s identified, it’s fixed.”
But with over 3,000 fake clinic operators and dozens of Yellow Pages publishers, a lot of problems are still not being identified. And the activists and health providers around the country who actually monitor fake clinics tell of many misleading ads that persist.
“Everyone just sort of waited for the committee to do something, when in fact we knew that there wasn’t a whole lot that they could do,” says Deanna Duby of the liberal lobbying group People for the American Way, which filed a consumer fraud complaint against several phony clinics in Maryland. The Maryland attorney general’s office, she recounts, dragged its feet, but negotiated with the local Yellow Pages to get one particularly misleading ad out of the “Abortion” listings – only to have it reappear under “Clinics.”
Many Yellow Pages publishers have neatly segregated the “Abortion” listings into “Alternatives” and “Services” – But have maintained a “Clinics” listing where anything goes. And the ads remain deceptive. At the front of the Chicago Yellow Pages is a full-page ad headed “Considering Abortion? It’s Your Choice.” It directs women to “The Women’s Center,” the chain of fake clinics run by anti-abortion pioneer Joe Schiedler. A Dayton, Ohio organization’s “Abortion Aftercare” hotline ad lists “possible aftereffects of abortion” from excessive bleeding and pelvic inflammation to “spontaneous crying” and “suicidal tendencies.” And when Manhattan Pregnancy Services, the phony clinic that Nicole visited, was barred from advertising under ” Clinics” by the state attorney general, they advertised as the “E. Manhattan Location” of a licensed Brooklyn clinic that agreed to lend its name.
“Ninety percent of the women we get who have been to fake clinics heard about them through the Yellow Pages,” says Amelia McCracken, director community education at Reproductive Health Services in St. Louis, where fake clinics outnumber real ones 16 to 5. “Women don’t read that small print. They just see the word ‘abortion,’ and they think that’s what they’re looking for.”
Another Hidden Agenda Fake clinic operators insist that most centers bear little resemblance to what they call the “extreme” tactics of the Pearson Foundation clinics. They are, they say, the victims of an “abortion industry” that is afraid of fake clinics cutting into their profits.
But most investigators agree that – with the possible exception of the Birthright chain – virtually all fake clinics engage in deceptive practices. In fact, Christian Action Council affiliates, which have complained the loudest about public criticism, have yielded some of the worst reports of coercive tactics and misinformation.
Among these have been reports that may betray another hidden agenda: adoption brokering. Planned Parenthood’s Leslie Sebastian says she’s heard from many women who were “railroaded into adoption” by bogus clinics, even when they intended to raise their babies themselves. One Kentucky woman reported being told that she should give her baby up for adoption because having premarital sex made her an unfit mother.
The most publicized case is that of Krista Stoner, a San Diego teenager who went to the San Diego Pregnancy Center, a CAC affiliate, for counseling in 1989. Stoner says that though she said she intended to keep her baby, they pegged her as a drug addict (she had used crystal metamphetamine prior to her pregnancy), and told her to give the baby up for adoption. “They [said] that it could be retarded, you’ve had drugs in your system so long – scared the hell out of me. You’re 19 years old, don’t know where to go, and here are these people you believe are your godsend, and you get in their little spell.”
Stoner was placed in a host home until she went into labor; then, while under sedation at the hospital, she was made to sign a form that the phony clinic representative said was “for MediCal reasons.” In fact, it authorized an adoptive couple chosen by the fake clinic to remove the baby from the hospital. This spring,Stoner Won a $325,000 judgment (as yet uncollected) against the phony clinic – But her daughter remains in the custody of the fundamentalist Christian couple who adopted her.
Sebastian is pleased with Stoner’s victory, along with her own successful lawsuit to bar three San Diego centers, including San Diego Pregnancy Center, from advertising as “clinics.” But she is disheartened as well. “We had to file a lawsuit, involve governmental agencies, spend resources, tie up a court’s time, to get an agency that’s not a licensed medical facility not to advertise as a medical clinic,” she says. “The state of California will protect you from Sears, but they won’t protect you from this, and I have a hard time understanding that, I really do.
Neil deMause is a freelance writer and co-editor of Frontlines, a New York-based reproductive rights newsletter.