Anti-abortion groups are opening fake clinics near actual reproductive health care providers across the country in an attempt to shame and scare women into staying pregnant.

On an overcast Saturday morning in late May, several protesters had gathered outside of Hartford GYN Center, an abortion clinic in Connecticut. Many of them were clutching rosaries, and some bore signs decorated with images of beatific infants, with the implication that similar infants were in immediate danger of being murdered. They were, by their own description, facing down “the Evil One;” later in the day, a protester would tell me that an acquaintance of hers had once seen the devil himself crouched atop a different clinic and mistaken it for a gargoyle.

At one point, one of the protesters abandoned her post on the sidewalk to vigorously spray the clinic’s sign with holy water. “I’m a prayer warrior,” she explained when asked what she was doing there. “I pray outside, and if a woman goes by, I ask her if she’s pregnant. If she’s pregnant, I give her one of these cards and tell her about the Hartford Women’s Center.”

She handed me one such card as she spoke; it was emblazoned with an image of a distraught-looking white woman slumped on a nondescript staircase. “Pregnant? Scared?” it inquires. “You’re not alone.” It directs women to St. Gerard’s Center for Life, a Hartford-based Catholic organization that aims to help women facing crisis pregnancies “make life-affirming decisions.” On the back, a slew of official-sounding services are advertised: free pregnancy tests, free limited obstetrical ultrasounds, abortion pill reversal, and assistance in “recovering from post-abortive trauma.”

Hartford Women’s Center, which opened its doors for the first time this month, is the newest St. Gerard’s location. It’s a mere 30 feet from Hartford GYN Center, in the same office complex, with nearly identical signage. This is very confusing, and intentionally so. Hartford Women’s Center is what’s known as a crisis pregnancy center (CPC), a term used to describe anti-abortion organizations whose sole purpose is to convince women to carry pregnancies to term, oftentimes by posing as legitimate reproductive health care providers.

CPCs typically employ a variety of deceptive tactics, including posting misleading ads and establishing locations next to clinics and hospitals, with the intent of luring women into their offices. Once women are in their clutches, they bombard them with spurious information: that abortions are extremely painful and perilous, that ending an unwanted pregnancy may result in permanent psychological damage, that an abortion might not even be necessary because miscarriage is so common. In some cases, staff will even lie about the fetus’ gestational age in order to push the pregnancy past the legal window for termination. There are currently over 3500 CPCs operating in America, compared with around 800 abortion clinics.

The card St. Gerard’s volunteers hand out outside of Hartford GYN Center

“The idea of a crisis pregnancy center being in your neighborhood is one thing,” said Amanda Kifferly, the director of patient advocacy at Hartford GYN Center, which has been providing abortion care and reproductive services to its patients since 1981. “And then for it to be in the same complex as an already licensed institution within the community—I think it increases the potential risk and damage that can happen.”

Although Hartford Women’s Center resembles a legitimate family planning clinic on its surface, it offers basically none of the vital health care services women can access next door at Hartford GYN Center: no STI testing, no well women exams, no prenatal care, no birth control. Women who end up in the center are told that abortion is murder, that several forms of contraception are also murder, and that choosing to terminate a pregnancy could have ruinous repercussions, including PTSD, breast cancer, and infertility. They’re urged to carry their pregnancies to term and promised financial and emotional support if they choose to do so. (In addition to the services advertised on its card, St. Gerard’s currently offers free baby clothing and diapers for women who enroll in its education program, social service referrals, and baptism preparation for infants and mothers alike.)

“We want to give these women support to give birth to their children,” Leticia Velasquez, the director of St. Gerard’s, told me. “Whatever it takes to have a woman give birth, we’re there for them.”

A CPC… has a single aim, and that aim is make sure that the woman carries her pregnancy to term.

According to the employees of Hartford GYN Center and pro-choice groups in the state, “whatever it takes” often involves unethical and deceptive tactics. “They’re obviously setting up in our complex as an opportunity to mislead our patients specifically,” said Kifferly. “And they’re appearing to look legitimate by taking our name.”

The proprietors of Hartford Women’s Center don’t deny that they’re trying to intercept Hartford GYN’s patients, though they insist that the help they offer women is sincere and substantial, lasting up to the baby’s second birthday. According to Velasquez, about 75 percent of the women they serve start out trying to go to Hartford GYN Center, and she expects that number to rise given their new proximity to their adversary. “That’s why we’re here,” she said. “We want to offer a choice at the door of the abortion clinic.”

A 2015 report from the pro-choice group NARAL investigated 27 crisis pregnancy centers in Connecticut, and found “a consistent pattern of misinformation, deceptive advertising, and blatant lies about reproductive health.” This is tantamount to a public health crisis, the organization warns. “If you’re an individual who is not used to receiving medical advice from a licensed medical practitioner… there’s no red flag for you,” said Sarah Croucher, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut. “You think that you’re getting medical advice, and you’re not.”

“What’s really dangerous about someone walking into a CPC is that CPC has a single aim, and that aim is make sure that the woman carries her pregnancy to term,” she explained. “And that’s not an aim that’s about caring about women and what’s in their best interests and helping them make decisions that are right for them. [Crisis pregnancy centers] will give whatever garbage information they want to achieve their aim.”

On Saturday, May 20, the Hartford Women’s Center held its inaugural event. Its door, which is about 10 feet from the ramp leading to Hartford GYN Center, was propped open invitingly, revealing a waiting room decorated with several framed photographs of landscapes, as well as a florid print of the words “You are loved.”

When I first encountered Leticia Velasquez, she was reclining genially in an armchair in the corner of this makeshift reception area, greeting each new arrival with enthusiasm. On the collar of her blazer was a minuscule opal pin in the shape of two baby feet; beside her was a large sign that read, in bright marker, “WELCOME to our Open House.” There is something very maternal and comforting about Velasquez. She speaks effusively and rapidly, switching with adeptness between religious, personal, and scientific arguments against abortion. Whenever logical inconsistencies threaten to undermine her wholehearted appeal—which is frequently—she shifts gears, speaking from personal experience and emphasizing the suffering she’s witnessed due to sex outside of marriage.

When asked about her organization’s stance on contraception, for instance, her response was assured. “Most women who come in here are here because the contraception didn’t work, OK?” she said. “One woman had a Norplant: It’s supposed to work! I said, ‘Well, obviously it didn’t.’ Because it was three years old, the last month, she got pregnant.”

“Pregnancy is sex working,” Velasquez said. “That’s the whole reason we have it, physically speaking. Now, that might not be your intention,” she added, likely recalling an incident a few minutes earlier in which I’d asked her if a statue of the pregnant Virgin Mary was St. Gerard, exposing myself as a true heathen (St. Gerard, as it turns out, is a man). “But the mistake we make is to go into it very casually, thinking that this one-night encounter won’t affect the rest of my life. It will. It can.”

Like Dr. Janet Smith, Velasquez seems to believe that sex outside of marriage is inherently calamitous. “Contraception gives you that false feelings that sex has nothing to do with procreation, and it also kind of shields you from making dumb moves: sleeping with someone with a disease, sleeping with crazy person that’s gonna haunt you and stalk you,” she clarified. “There’s a lot of hurt in society now, and people say depression and suicide, it’s increasing. All the things that contraception was supposed to cure… a lot of them were caused by contraception.”

The exam room at Hartford GYN Center, left, and Hartford Women’s Center’s ultrasound machine

The Hartford Women’s Center is equipped to give women “limited medical ultrasounds,” Velasquez told me, in order to “acquaint the mother with her child, and [ascertain] that it’s a healthy pregnancy” —she paused, nearly imperceptibly, then corrected herself— “not a healthy pregnancy, but that it’s in the right place.” If the pregnancy is not in the right place, the Center can refer women elsewhere, but that’s about it. “We don’t do surgery,” she said. “Our medical doctor is not an [obstetrician]. She’s a family practice. She reads the scans.” (Hartford GYN Center has two licensed ultrasound technicians on staff, as well as numerous licensed OB/GYNs.)

It’s unclear what a “limited medical ultrasound” is. It’s not a term used in the medical community, according to Croucher of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut. It also doesn’t seem to appear in any reputable, legitimate sources, save for one: In 2005, the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine released a statement condemning the practice of performing ultrasounds for “bonding and reassurance purposes.” Scans should only be performed by licensed medical professionals who have been trained to recognize medically important conditions, the organization warned: “Any other use of ‘limited medical ultrasound’ may constitute practice of medicine without a license.”

Despite this, Velasquez is quick to criticize Hartford GYN Center for their lack of services. “As far as I know, their tagline is ‘Abortion is 100 percent of what we do,'” she said. (Their tagline is “Unsurpassed excellence in women’s health care.”)

Pregnancy is sex working. That’s the whole reason we have it, physically speaking.

“I don’t see job counseling, I don’t see looking for housing or paying first month’s rent, or parenting classes or adoption plans,” she added. “I don’t see that listed as ‘services.'” Under the “other services” section of the Hartford GYN Center’s website, several things are listed: pregnancy testing, ultrasound exams, birth control, STI testing and treatment, emergency contraception, colposcopies, and gynecological care. They also offer education and support, including options counseling and adoption counseling and services.

In her role as patient advocate at Hartford GYN Center, Kifferly constantly fields calls from women who are considering abortion care. When someone is solid in their decision, she respects their autonomy. “If someone calls me and says, ‘I’m calling to make an appointment for an abortion,’ I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, well, let’s take a step back. Have you thought about motherhood?'” she said. If that same caller were to express doubt, however, she says she would offer them comprehensive options counseling, including discussing the potential of motherhood and adoption.

“I’ve absolutely witnessed patients come into the clinic, and I’ve assisted in them having pregnancies and carrying to term and choosing parenthood, and I’ve assisted in adoptions. All of those things are pretty common,” she continued. “As a woman, I have been in the situation of pregnancy scares and pregnancy, and I know that you know what’s in your heart, and you also know your body well enough to articulate that.”

St. Gerard’s is an affiliate of Heartbeat International (HBI), the biggest crisis pregnancy center network in the world. HBI has over 2000 affiliated organizations in 50 countries, and they also operate Option Line, a deceptively secular-looking 24-hour pregnancy helpline that answers over 600 calls and chats a day. In March of 2017 alone, Option Line volunteers offered counseling to over 28,000 women. The organization is experienced in using Google’s AdWords program to boost their visibility, especially in conjunction with abortion-related searches—in their 2014 annual report, HBI boasted that “a woman who makes a Google search such as ‘pregnant and scared’ finds a local Heartbeat International affiliate or Option Line in her search.”

Although there are no explicitly religious references on the Option Line website, it agenda is obviously and extremely Catholic—which is to say, staunchly anti-abortion and anti-contraception. “Last year alone, 50 million babies—created in the image of God—were silently put to death before they were even born,” laments the HBI website, on a page dedicated to Option Line. “You probably know someone who has had an abortion. Was there something you could have done to prevent it?”

Option Line is rife with misinformation about abortion and contraception, though it has the appearance of a legitimate medical service, at least aesthetically. (Its logo suspiciously resembles that of Plan B, the emergency contraceptive pill.) On every single informational page, visitors are referred to HBI-affiliated crisis pregnancy centers in their area, though the true goal of these centers is only vaguely alluded to, often after a wall of official-seeming medical platitudes. “These centers don’t perform or refer for abortions, but they have a lot of information about all your options,” reads a cheery disclaimer at the bottom of a page entitled “Considering Abortion.” “Many of them are even able to give you a free ultrasound.”

https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/how-anti-abortion-zealots-pose-as-medical-professionals-to-trick-pregnant-women