News stories about investigations into Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) misleading women through deceptive advertising, malevolent counseling and egregious misinformation are pretty common. But one CPC wolf in sheep’s clothing is Real Alternatives. It’s a Pennsylvania state-funded program that claims it “exists to provide life-affirming alternatives to abortion” to women who are financially qualified. Real Alternatives (henceforth abbreviated as RA) boasts that their program has been helping women since 1996 while also abiding by stringent accountability to the state. Even though Real Alternatives claims that they do not use deception to attract clients, in actuality, they use what Heiss, Monge, & Fulk, (2012) call predatory practices that resemble legitimate reproductive health providers (RHPs). In their attempts to appear as a legitimate RHP, Heiss, Monge & Fulk found that CPCs rely on ambiguity in their values and program offerings to elicit positive responses from potential clients and the public. Applying the concept of predatory practices, I argue that while RA’s textual and visual communication practices uses woman-centered advocacy language like “we’re here for you” and “your alternatives to abortion” and “forced abortion and your right to choose” and more, they promote, instead, distorted interpretations of the scientific literature and prescriptive counseling that can be misleading and even dangerous to a woman’s health if she makes a decision based on false information. To that end, I will turn to RAs home page where there is an array of text, images, and hypertext links to videos and where I will focus my attention on the video The Miracle of Life. But first, I want to tour the home page because it provides evidence that pregnancy and women’s sexuality are framed as problematic territory. The tabs in the uppermost section of the page attest to this problematic with labels such as Pregnant? Being Forced to Abort? Worried about STDs? Caring for Your Baby? In the center of the page, are images of young women in poses, arguably framed as pensive and frightened, with the eye-catching, continuous loop of flashing yellow text that underscores what RA frames as the problematic of women’s sexuality with the words: Pregnant? Scared? Concerned about STDs & Sexual Health? Below the flashing text, the offer of services reads:
Whatever the reason, we can help. Call us at 1-888-LIFE AID for free, caring and completely confidential pregnancy and parenting support services. We can educate you about reproductive health concerns, and we can assist you in finding appropriate medical help. You’ll speak to women who will be on your side every step of the way. We’re here for YOU.
The second video and the focus of this article, The Miracle of Life, is introduced with the text, View a Short Film about Your Baby’s Development. It provides an emotionally manipulative and factually deceptive video about fetal development. In the 3.33 minute long video, a Miracle of Life is visually appealing, yet problematic in that it symbolically annihilates the complexities of a woman’s private life while it visually and textually offers one solution. In general, the Caucasian-centric video uses a problem-solution format beginning with a series of questions and answers about a pregnancy and the fetus with the invocation at the end to choose life. Through the use of computer-generated graphics, soulful music and emotionally manipulative juxtapositions of imagery, the producers at Catholic Media House drive home the fact that the fetus is a living human entity. In what is arguably an artifact of Catholic propaganda, The Miracle of Life intentionally blurs the lines between fact and fiction about fetal development in an ethically compromised production. While it purports to be truthful, to hold claim to reality and to the authority of science, the video exists as a tool of the Catholic Church to support their religious power structure and their privileged forms of communication within their church and the state of Pennsylvania. While a deconstruction of the video could extend for pages, I’ll give a few highlights to illustrate how the lines between fact and fiction work.
The beginning of the video opens with a black screen and piano music that dissolves to an image of a gestationally-advanced abdomen of a pregnant woman with text floating on and off the screen What should I do? “Is this a fetus or a baby? “When does life really begin? Then the question to the audience “Do you know about the miracle of life?” with the word miracle in enlarged red text that flashes and expands, as if “breathing” in and out on the screen then transitions to an image of a zygote with text that reads “at the moment of conception, a unique human being’s DNA is created, then a flash of the DNA helix and the text “human DNA that never existed before and will never be repeated again.” Thus, the fetal-centric tone of the video is established.
As the video continues, gestational milestones are offered as scientific facts. For example, the video, using the female pronomial reference, claims that at six weeks, “she has fingers and toes” while sources such as the National Institute of Health (NIH) claim that at eight weeks the arms and legs have grown longer and that while the foot and hand areas may be distinguished, the digits are still webbed.
In an emotional framing, the video erroneously claims that at 11 weeks, she can smile and frown, wiggle her fingers and toes and even suck her thumb. And while it’s a charming thought to consider such animation and agency of the fetus, the science provides a more sober response. Piontelli (2010) found that an immature suck-swallow pattern is observed at 32-34 weeks while other sources (Mayo, NIH) note non-directed sucking motions at 26 weeks. It’s a far cry from the Hallmark card version of hegemonic parenting and the preferred reading of pregnancy and infancy.
At 16 weeks, the Miracle of Life video claims that she can open and close her eyes and that she has her own fingerprints while the NIH states that around 11-14 weeks the eyelids close and will not reopen until around 28 weeks. It further states that finger and foot prints do not begin to form until around week 30.
While I’ve provided only a few examples of how the producers blurred the lines between fact and fiction, the overall pattern of enthusiastic support for the fetus in exuberant applications of artistry over reality can easily be discerned. The concern I want to point out is how potentially problematic the video can be for a distraught woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Regardless of circumstances, all women deserve honest and accurate information when faced with a pregnancy. Real Alternatives, is, instead, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Posed to appear as a legitimate reproductive health care facility, RA, instead, disseminates misleading and false information. Like the thousands of CPCs across the United States, I find that RA’s predatory textual and visual communication practices, as illustrated in this very short video, clearly violate ethical guidelines about truthfulness and the admonition to do no harm. It’s a miracle that their work is considered legal.
Heiss, B. M., Monge, P. and Fulk, J. , 2012-05-24 “Predatory Mimicry in the Crisis Pregnancy Center Movement: Ambiguous Form Communication as an Evolutionary Strategy” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Sheraton Phoenix Downtown, Phoenix, AZ Online <APPLICATION/PDF>. 2013-08-16 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p552613_index.html
Piontelli, A. (2010). Development of Normal Fetal Movements: The First 25 Weeks of Gestation. Milan, Italy:Springer Verlag.