Across California, crisis pregnancy centers are posing as medical offices and providing women with biased and sometimes false information with the goal of keeping them from getting abortions, according to an investigation by NARAL Pro-Choice California, which supports abortion rights. The report coincides with a national report by NARAL Pro-Choice America, which claims the same practices are occurring across the U.S.
Peggy Hartshorn, the head of a network of pregnancy centers, denounced the national NARAL report as "an attack on the truth," insisting that the centers "exist to empower a woman to make the healthiest choice for all involved."
The local NARAL sent undercover investigators to 45 of the 167 crisis pregnancy centers in California, and found a number of questionable practices, including at centers licensed as free or community clinics by the California Department of Public Health, according to its report.
The investigators said nine out of 10 centers they visited "falsely linked abortion with health problems such as breast cancer, infertility, mental health problems and even death," the report said. It accused the centers of trying to "scare and manipulate women" by giving them "graphic, exaggerated descriptions of an abortion procedure" and showing them "gory videos."
NARAL claimed the pregnancy centers "dangerously delay access to legitimate medical care," asserting that when investigators complained of symptoms that could indicate a complication of pregnancy, "they were rarely referred to a doctor." It said its investigators "were also led to believe that they had ample time to make a decision about having an abortion when they would have been near the end of their first trimester."
The report said the pregnancy centers use "false advertising that implies that they offer abortion services, when they exist to prevent women from exercising their right to choose."
The investigators posed as women who may be facing an unplanned pregnancy and needed both a pregnancy test and further knowledge of their options. They presented one of three scenarios: Being undecided about an unintended pregnancy; seeking an abortion and information about abortion for an unintended pregnancy; and wanting to keep an unintended pregnancy.
Hartshorn, president of Heartbeat International, a network of pregnancy centers and other "pro-life pregnancy help organizations," belittled NARAL America's report, maintaining in a statement that it consisted of "false and flimsy allegations."
She went on to say that "no woman should ever feel so alone, coerced, or hopeless that she ends her child's life through abortion," adding, "that's why, in every corner of the globe, Heartbeat International affiliates and others provide all the facts about pregnancy - including the baby's development and the many serious physical and psychological dangers of abortion."
Heartbeat International claims to have more than 1,800 affiliated "pregnancy help locations" on six continents, including "medical clinics...resource centers, maternity homes, and adoption agencies."
NARAL California found "at least" 19 of the pregnancy centers it visited are licensed by the California Department of Public Health, according to spokeswoman Rebecca Griffin. The Department has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Griffin said her organization has also forwarded its information to California Attorney General Kamala Harris' office, in the hopes that it will investigate NARAL's allegation that pregnancy centers engage in false advertising. Harris' office has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Pregnancy Help Center in Torrance is one of the state-licensed centers NARAL's investigators visited. Norma Graze, the center’s marketing and communications manager, said it does not employ the scare tactics described in the NARAL report.
The center counsels women on their reproductive options, including offering information about abortions, she said, adding that it does not refer women to abortion providers.
"Would I say that we are life-affirming? Yes, we are," she said. "We definitely think that a woman has the right to make that choice, but we hope that she chooses life."
The Center also provides free tests for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, along with limited ultrasounds to verify whether a woman’s pregnancy is viable, how far along she is, and whether there’s a heartbeat, Graze said.