If you walked into the Northwest Pregnancy Center not knowing what to expect, you might think you had wound up in a pediatrician’s office. Children’s drawings adorn the cramped lobby’s peach-colored walls near the receptionist’s desk, and framed fetal portraiture hangs on another. A brochure rack on a third wall holds pamphlets on adoption and various aspects of parenting.
It comes up as the second hit in a quick Google search for “pregnancy help in Washington, D.C.” A place called Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center comes up first. The centers, at first glance, seem like viable sources of information and support for any woman facing an unexpected pregnancy. They offer free pregnancy tests, options counseling, and other support services for women who are pregnant or think they may be.
These centers are also firmly pro-life, and various investigations by activists, journalists, and elected officials have found them giving misleading information about abortion and targeting women seeking one.
In October, a Georgetown University student group called H*yas for Choice telephoned the two D.C. centers posing as pregnant women and their loved ones asking for information. What they found, say seniors and co-presidents Michaela Lewis and Annie Mason, is that these centers use “covert” rather than blatantly anti-abortion language to “trick women.” The students use an asterisk in H*yas to indicate their status as an unrecognized and unfunded student group on a Jesuit campus.
“The idea behind the crisis pregnancy center, which is often funded by or run by a religious or anti-choice organization, is to persuade women from having abortions or to delay them in having an abortion to the point where it would no longer be legal or affordable to the person seeking it,” Lewis says.
City Paper visited the two centers, Northwest and Capitol Hill, and spoke with the executive director of each.
Susan Gallucci of the Northwest Center is a Georgetown alumna herself. She has worked at Northwest for about 12 years and describes a very different kind of operation than what’s depicted in national investigations.
“Definitely be skeptical and question. That’s fine; I’m going to question Planned Parenthood, what they’re doing there. But those false accusations, I think, aren’t fair,” she says in response to pro-choice characterizations of crisis pregnancy centers.
This dispute reveals a confusing landscape for pregnant young women in D.C. who reach one of these two centers before they talk to a doctor. It also exposes gray areas in an abortion debate that’s so frequently painted black and white.
Some of what center representatives said to the students over the phone was false or incomplete, but other information was true or useful. The nature of conversations center staff have with clients behind closed doors remains unknown, but some of the services they provide are valuable—especially to a pregnant woman who is already set on giving birth.
At issue is whether or not these centers make themselves out to be medical facilities, giving the impression that they are worthy of a level of trust only doctors can satisfy, and whether the centers do this to persuade against abortion. Both facilities offer urine-based pregnancy tests and counseling, which the students say is enough to suggest that these are trusted facilities.
Comparable centers in some other jurisdictions are required to post signs stating that they are not medical facilities, but in D.C. there is no such requirement. A California disclosure law regulating such centers in that state is set to be argued before the Supreme Court in March.
“They’re relying on people to feel insecure about the situation that they’re in and needing guidance from someone that they think is a medical expert,” says Mason.
Crisis pregnancy centers are scattered across the nation. Estimates put the number at about 3,000 in the U.S. In D.C., Northwest and Capitol Hill have similarities between them, but also notable differences in terms of their offerings and approaches.
The Northwest Center includes an adjacent maternity home that houses four pregnant women at a time until their babies turn 18 months old. A woman who has unstable housing, or is facing abuse or pressures at home to have an abortion, may be able to stay there. These women contribute 30% of whatever their income may be to live there.
At the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center, executive director Janet Durig and director of client and volunteer services Raquel Terry fervently deny the accusation that they or their staff members use manipulation or deception to sway clients in one direction or another in their pregnancy decisions. They say the center isn’t there to trick anyone, but to help them.
“We’re one of the choices,” Durig says. “Keeping the baby is one of the choices.”
Capitol Hill recently hired a medical director who will oversee ultrasounds, which the center hopes to begin offering in the next few months, Durig says. An ultrasound is an external procedure that produces an image—called a sonogram—of a developing fetus in utero. Obstetricians typically analyze the sonogram and explain to expecting parents the size of the baby, its age and gender, the presence and status of major internal organs, and look for certain birth defects. Durig says she’s hired a physician’s assistant who has been a volunteer counselor at the center and completed training in sonography, and that the center plans to send the images to doctors outside the office who can review them.
Capitol Hill is an affiliate of a national organization called Care Net, a religious, anti-abortion non-profit that provides “ongoing practical support for those choosing non-violent options,” according to its website. Both centers are affiliates of Heartbeat International, another national pro-life organization.
D.C. does not require crisis pregnancy centers to disclose that they’re not medical facilities. Deputy Director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Lori Parris says that DCRA does not regulate the activity of such centers, and a D.C. Department of Health spokesperson, Jasmine Gossett, says that DOH is “not aware, at this time, of existing regulations around this.” Senior Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center Heather Shumaker concurred, saying that while NWLC does track some laws regarding crisis pregnancy centers, not many states implement them, and they are unaware of any law in D.C.
Capitol Hill posts no signs stating that it’s not a medical facility.
The Northwest Center displays signage that states it does not perform abortions or provide referrals for abortions on a printed 8.5 by 11-inch piece of paper posted near the entrance. The fact that it’s not a medical facility is written on the same page—by hand, in pencil—next to a list of Heartbeat International’s values and information stating that their centers follow applicable regulations for medical facilities.
The Northwest Center, unlike Capitol Hill, is not a religious organization, though it does follow Catholic social teaching regarding the sanctity of life. Founded in 1981 by Georgetown alumni, it is run by licensed social workers like Gallucci, who says they are very forthcoming about the fact that they’re not a medical center.
“We’re not medical here so we can’t really say exactly for sure,” a Northwest staffer said on the phone to a student regarding medical complications of abortion. A Northwest pamphlet also offers the disclaimer that it doesn’t perform or refer for abortions and that its counseling services are not meant to replace professional counseling.
Gallucci says the purpose of providing options counseling (the main options being parenting, adoption, and abortion) at Northwest is not to give the impression of medical accuracy, but rather to present a woman with all her options. The center does take a pro-life stance, but she says they do not persuade against abortion.
In other cities, ordinances require limited-service pregnancy centers to display signage that indicates there are no medical professionals on staff. The Montgomery County Board of Health, for example, adopted a resolution requiring such a sign in 2010. The New York City Council passed a law that requires these centers to post signage that discloses whether a medical professional oversees services. Both faced legal challenges, with the Montgomery County ordinance eventually struck down.
California pregnancy centers are fighting a state law that requires them to disclose whether there are medical professionals on staff and that the state provides assistance in contraceptive coverage and abortion. The case, NIFLA v. Becerra, has reached the Supreme Court and is expected to be argued this March. The centers argue that the law is a violation of their free speech. The case pits crisis pregnancy centers’ free speech against the interest of full disclosure to clients.
Over the course of two weeks, the Georgetown students completed four phone calls with Northwest and one with Capitol Hill pretending to be pregnant women or their roommates or partners.
Some of what they heard from the D.C. centers validated their suspicions, but they were also surprised.
Before making calls they read investigations that other groups have done on crisis pregnancy centers in other jurisdictions. A NARAL Pro-Choice America investigation into what kinds of deception centers may use found that 95% of centers in Connecticut gave misleading information about abortion. A 2006 report by a Democratic congressman found that 20 of 23 contacted pregnancy centers gave false or misleading information. A short 2014 documentary by Vice called “Misconception” went undercover and found centers hiding the fact that they do not offer abortions and stating untrue claims about their risks.
“We were expecting, I think, to hear more of the overtly anti-choice language that you would hear if you were going in person to a crisis pregnancy center as you can see in different documentaries and different exposés that have been done,” says Lewis. “But that anti-choice language was really limited. And the providers were less forthcoming with that. They were saying things that might be true. ‘There are options, you have options. Come inside, we’ll talk.’”
The transcripts of these phone calls are available on the group’s blog, and City Paper reviewed audio recordings of the calls.
Both centers listed difficulty in becoming pregnant in the future as a possible side effect of abortion for some women.
“In terms about side effects for abortion,” a Capitol Hill representative told a H*yas for Choice student over the phone, “there are several physical side effects that are possible. Heavy bleeding … There are different ways to perform it and there could be longer-term consequences, potentially not being able to get pregnant in the future.”
But the termination of pregnancies before about 10 weeks—which the H*yas for Choice callers certainly fell within in their hypothetical scenarios—can be done using a medical abortion, also known as the abortion pill, and there is no evidence of future infertility with this method. Medical professionals generally agree that having a surgical abortion does not significantly increase the risk of future difficulty getting pregnant except in rare cases of damage to the cervix or uterus, or scar tissue buildup after multiple procedures.
Both centers expounded on emotional side effects. After describing infertility risks, the Capitol Hill staffer followed with: “What a lot of doctors in clinics won’t necessarily share is that the emotional side effects are often lifelong as well, that the trauma of losing a baby can also impact her for a long time, and it’s hard to know what that may look like.”
When a student called Northwest and asked for information on abortion risks, a staff member said, “In terms in how you might be affected afterwards, and everyone reacts differently, emotionally some people they act with guilt or regret, you know, they have different feelings like that.”
Lewis and Mason say that listing the emotional effects of abortion is a way of manipulating women into keeping their babies.
Gallucci, conversely, says that it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about emotions. “Will we talk to women that there are possible emotional effects of abortion, at some point if we’re sitting down, maybe on the phone, maybe not?” she asks. “Absolutely. I’ve seen far too many women tell me very emotional things. Of all the women I’ve seen, I’ve had one who told me the abortion didn’t affect her at all, in 12 years.”
The student who called Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center said that his girlfriend was pregnant and that he didn’t want her to go through with an abortion.
“At six weeks, the baby already has fingers and toes and fingernails and toenails,” someone at Capitol Hill told him over the phone. “And at 10 weeks, the baby can actually feel pain and sometimes I think we don’t even realize how early on those things are formed.”
There is virtually no scientific evidence that a fetus can feel pain at 10 weeks. Pro-life advocates regularly assert that pain can be first felt at 20 weeks and push for laws based on literature suggesting that number. And even 20 weeks is disputed by much of the medical community, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which contends that a fetus does not have the capability to feel pain until it has a chance of surviving outside the womb, at about 24 weeks.
In an interview, Durig agreed that the consensus on when a fetus feels pain is around 20 weeks. But she also said that we cannot know for sure, and that it’s possible that pain could be felt at 10 weeks.
Mason and Lewis observed, across most of the phone calls, a consistent push for those calling to come to the centers in person for further information. The students say this is a strategy on the part of the centers—not being forthcoming on the phone in an effort to get clients in the door.
“If you want to come in, we have information on different procedures or things like that, or if you want to come in and talk about your different options,” a Northwest staffer said. When the student on the same call asked what kinds of different abortion procedures there are, the staffer said: “So if you come in, we can talk a little bit more about this, but do you know when the first day of your last period was?” And later in the call: “So we don’t provide abortions here. We just provide information, if you just want to come in and talk about different options.”
“They rely on the tactic of having someone in their presence to make that emotional pull more compelling,” Lewis says.
The students operated their phone-calling campaign independently from other groups, but also launched a social media movement with their own hashtag #ExposeYourOwn to encourage their peers to post about “fake clinics” in their hometowns during a national effort spearheaded by pro-choice organizations.
On a Friday afternoon in November, Durig and Terry sat in an office space in the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center and spoke about its mission to support women and men dealing with a crisis pregnancy.
In addition to offering free pregnancy tests and counseling to educate clients on their options, Durig says, they also refer clients to free medical resources elsewhere and offer material resources such as baby clothes and blankets that are donated to the center. Their storage rooms are filled with overflowing bins of such donations, and people often drop by the center during the day with donations.
“We let everyone know we’re a faith-based organization. We’re here to help them,” Durig says. “We do not sit here and talk them into keeping the baby,” she adds.
She says that she and her staff could tell they were getting suspicious phone calls and were aware of pro-choice efforts against crisis pregnancy centers. The information the staff gave the students on the phone, she says, is not in line with Capitol Hill training protocol. She noted that if these things were said on the phone, it must have been by someone who didn’t know what they were doing, like an intern.
The center is easy to spot from the street. It’s in a large, cream white and hunter green brick building. The lobby area is spacious and well-lit by its many windows.
Inside the waiting area, baby blue walls are almost empty of decor. In front of the reception desk sits a rack of donated children’s shoes and a shelf of free parenting books for clients. A table with resource pamphlets stands on one side of the room, and on the walls around it are photographs of healthy-looking babies. In addition to pamphlets on parenting skills and adoption information similar to those found at Northwest, this table includes pamphlets like “What Does God Say About Abortions?” and “Before You Decide,” which details some scientifically contested information on abortion risks, such as a link between abortion and breast cancer.
The pamphlets come from Care Net and a Christian organization called Focus on the Family, Durig says. Some of Northwest’s pamphlets also come from Focus on the Family, according to Gallucci.
Durig takes issue with pro-choice narratives around crisis pregnancy centers. She says the services they provide are valuable to people who do want to keep their babies. “If they choose life, let them choose life,” she says.
For mothers who choose adoption, Capitol Hill partners with many adoption organizations in the D.C. area. For a woman who may leave the center and end up having an abortion, Durig says, she is welcome to return for post-abortion counseling and “healing.”
Most of the same resources are available at Northwest, though Gallucci says they refer out for post-abortion counseling.
Mason and Lewis argue that women can get material assistance and emotional help from organizations that don’t look like medial clinics and take a pro-life stance, and that the rest should come from doctors.
“If you’ve ever heard Paul Ryan talking about defunding Planned Parenthood and shifting toward a replacement in the form of community health clinics or community health centers, the idea behind that is that we should be shifting from providers that provide abortions to providers that have a political, religious, and quote-unquote moral agenda to make that service unavailable,” says Lewis.
Gallucci is proud of her center, and does want to reach women who might be considering abortion so that they can provide alternatives, but hopes for a bridge to her detractors.
“We’re not going to change each other’s minds, and we don’t have to work together all the time,” she says of pro-choice advocates, “but in what points can we say—especially as women, especially with Trump as president—at what points can we say, ‘What can we agree on?’”
“No matter what someone chooses, how can we be there as community, whether they be a single woman who had an abortion, whether it be a mom who had the baby, how can we say ‘OK, we’re going to respect each other as women.’”