Centre for Cultures of Reproduction, Technologies and Health

CPCs and Anti-abortion activism: a threat to Reproductive Justice

CORTH Blog: 26 November 2020

Elizabeth Wright Veintimilla is an Ecuadorian feminist and gender specialist, with expertise on sexual and domestic violence, reproductive justice, migration and multimedia feminist activism. She holds a Master’s degree on Gender, Violence & Conflict from the University of Sussex. She is the creator of Picture Her Story and Me Voy de Casa. Email: elywright47@gmail.com

 Radical Reproductive Justice

Given that the Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion is celebrated every year on September 28th (#28S), there’s been a lot of efforts addressing abortion over the last several weeks including webinars, protests and social media campaigns. #28S began in Latin America and the Caribbean in 1990 with the aim of demanding governments to decriminalize abortion, provide access to safe and affordable abortion services and end stigma and discrimination towards women who choose to have an abortion.       

The extra attention given to abortion debates these days provides a timely opportunity for us to address one of the most common and globally influential anti-abortion strategies: Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs). Also known as Pregnancy Resource Centres, and sometimes referred by reproductive health advocates as anti-choice clinics, CPCs are religiously-informed[1] antiabortion nonprofit organizations that dissuade women, teenagers and girls facing unintended or unwanted pregnancies from choosing abortion. I will describe the services CPCs provide as well as their tactics later on. The existence of these centres as well as their deceptive strategies remain widely unknown, even in reproductive health, rights and justice movements. At the same time, in spaces where CPCs are known and considered an issue that constrict abortion, they are often overlooked.  

For my dissertation, I chose to write a transnational analysis of CPCs using a reproductive justice[2] (RJ) framework. To do this, I conducted interviews with 9 contributing reporters that worked on the undercover investigation on CPCs conducted by openDemocracy’s Tracking the Backlash project, published earlier this year. In this blog post I want to share how my research started, why openDemocracy’s findings matter and what I found in the process.

My research process

I first became aware of CPCs at the beginning of 2017 when I began to advocate for reproductive rights issues and gender violence in my home country, Ecuador. I attended an event organized by local feminist collectives working on access to safe abortion, where they invited activists from countries such as Dominican Republic, Peru and Chile to speak about their experiences. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work on efforts to increase access to safe abortion and advocate for reproductive rights in Latin America and globally.   

It took me some time to decide on a dissertation topic, although I knew that it would be related to sexual and reproductive rights. I chose to write about CPCs when I reflected further on the overlooked impact they have, since I know women who have accidentally gone to them for information, and how traumatized and affected they were as a result.

At the beginning of my research, I read extensively about CPCs, from the history of the movement and the ways it expanded, to their strategies and sources of funding. At the same time, I was reading openDemocracy’s articles related to their investigation on CPCs, which you can find links to at the end of the blog post. I realized that there was a clear disconnect between the academic literature I found and the findings of the investigation: there was almost no scholarly research on CPCs beyond US borders. The vast majority of research documenting CPCs is focused on the United States, despite the fact that the CPC movement has expanded across borders and contexts during the past fifty years. Meanwhile, since I knew that I needed to find a theoretical framework that could capture my analysis, I read extensively about reproductive justice theory and praxis. This led me to identify another gap: there was very little literature on CPCs from a RJ lens.    

My findings 

  1. CPCs and their strategies

To start, the CPC movement in the United States encompasses more organizations (centres), volunteers, and volunteer hours than all other forms of antiabortion activism combined. In Italy, there are approximately 600 pro-life groups, more than 400 of them are CPCs. Identifying the exact number of CPCs in other countries is challenging, but it is known that they have a presence on every continent. The majority of these centres are connected to one or more US-based umbrella organizations such as Care Net and Heartbeat International, which provide legal guidance, pamphlets, assistance to purchase ultrasound machines, as well as online training and funding for affiliates around the world (see Heartbeat International’s Worldwide Directory of Pregnancy Help here).

CPCs offer a wide range of services to their pregnant clients such as information, counselling and social services referrals, as well as parenting classes and abstinence education programs. Most of them offer free material resources such as clothing, diapers, and formula, to help alleviate some of the financial needs that could potentially be one of the reasons their clients are considering abortion. CPCs often lure women in their facilities by implying that they offer abortions when they do not, and by offering free pregnancy tests in hopes of intervening in their clients’ decisions. 

Other strategies used by CPCs to dissuade women from having abortions include providing misleading or false information about abortion; claiming incorrectly, for instance, that abortion leads to infertility, mental health problems and cancer. Likewise, CPC activists often pathologize and stigmatize abortion by using the term post- abortion trauma, which is unrecognized in the medical field. An openDemocracy contributing reporter visited several CPCs in Italy, where she was told that if she had an abortion, there was 50% increased risk of breast cancer. CPCs may often share false information about abortion laws. In Mexico City, another reporter was told that she needs her partner’s or a relative’s consent to get an abortion, which is not true.    

Finally, another tactic is opening crisis pregnancy centres near actual abortion clinics in order to confuse those seeking abortion services and information. In Italy, they are often located inside hospitals. CPCs not only target women they see as “abortion- minded”, but specifically target low-income communities. They often advertise on high school and college campuses because they also target vulnerable, young women and teenagers. CPCs believe their initiatives are best suited for these demographics because they have higher rates of pregnancy and abortion, which makes them more susceptible to CPC practices. 

        2. Local contexts, global trajectories 

While reflecting on what enables CPCs to exist, I realized that situating my analysis of abortion in local and transnational contexts would be key. I dedicated some time to learn about the role of abortion laws, stigma, culture and religion, and how these interconnected factors may influence the ways in which CPCs work. I emphasized my research on the countries from which my interviewees conducted their investigation: the UK, Ecuador, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Italy, Spain and the US. In regards to crisis pregnancy centres, some of these contextual forces are reinforced by the anti-abortion movement and include legal and social criminalization of abortion, religious views, gender essentialism, abortion stigma, among others. These varying forces that influence women’s reproductive decisions and experiences not only exist in local interconnected ways, but also transnationally, meaning that various anti-abortion initiatives are strengthened by their global vision. As openDemocracy discovered and as I argue in my dissertation, many of these efforts are linked to the US, and CPCs are no exception.  

By taking advantage of vulnerable, anxious women facing unwanted pregnancies, CPCs threaten women's reproductive health, rights and freedom every day. As the #28S worldwide campaign ends, let’s not forget that anti-abortionists and CPC activists will continue their efforts to constrict access to abortion, even during the COVID-19 crisis (see here). As reproductive justice and human rights advocates, it is absolutely key that we pay more attention to the coercive and deceptive tactics of CPCs. However, we must not forget that the CPC movement exists outside the United States and, paradoxically, is highly influenced by the US government and US-based umbrella organizations.

There is a lot that activists and allies can do, like informing ourselves, sharing information on access to safe abortion and raising awareness on CPCs worldwide. The “Further reading” section will provide you with articles and scholarship on Crisis Pregnancy Centers, Global Feminism and Reproductive Justice. Start today if you can. 

For further reading:

At the beginning of July, I made a Venn diagram about the main themes across my research to visualize the available existing literature, locate the gaps and define my dissertation objectives. Below is a digital version of my hand drawn diagram, I share it because it might help you understand the importance of combining these topics for a more comprehensive and intersectional analysis of the anti-abortion and CPC movements.  

Radical Reproductive Justice 2

References cited in diagram: These are some of the main readings that helped me develop my analysis  

Bakhru, T.S. ed., 2019. Reproductive justice and sexual rights: transnational perspectives. Routledge.

Bloomer, F. and Pierson, C., 2018. Reimagining global abortion politics: A social justice perspective. Policy Press.

Li, H., 2019. Crisis Pregnancy Centers in Canada and Reproductive Justice Organizations’ Responses. Global Journal of Health Science, 11(2).

Smith, A., 2005. Beyond pro-choice versus pro-life: Women of color and reproductive justice. NWSA journal, pp.119-140.

Thomsen, C. and Morrison, G.T., 2020. Abortion as Gender Transgression: Reproductive Justice, Queer Theory, and Anti–Crisis Pregnancy Center Activism. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 45(3), pp.703-730.

Books shown in the picture: The book by Mwansa is a booklet or guide for those who wish to open a religiously-informed CPC in Africa. It was written by active members of Heartbeat International and other anti-abortion organizations. I read literature written by anti-abortionists and CPC leaders to further understand their strategies.

Mwansa, E. and Mwansa, B. (2018). Starting a Pregnancy Resource Center. Self-published.

Ross, L., Derkas, E., Peoples, W., Roberts, L. and Bridgewater, P. eds., 2017. Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundation, theory, practice, critique. Feminist Press at CUNY.

References: Some of the literature I used for my dissertation and this blog

Avanza, M., 2020. Using a Feminist Paradigm (Intersectionality) to Study Conservative Women: The Case of Pro-life Activists in Italy. Politics & Gender, 16(2), pp.552-580.

Ehrlich, J.S. and Doan, A.E., 2019. Abortion regret: The new attack on reproductive freedom. ABC-CLIO.

Bryant, A.G., Narasimhan, S., Bryant-Comstock, K. and Levi, E.E., 2014. Crisis pregnancy center websites: information, misinformation and disinformation. Contraception, 90(6), pp.601-605.

Campbell, B.A., 2017. The Crisis Inside Crisis Pregnancy Centers: How to Stop These Facilities from Depriving Women of Their Reproductive Freedom. BCJL & Soc. Just., 37, p.73.

Hussey, L.S., 2013. Crisis Pregnancy Centers, Poverty, and the Expanding Frontiers of American Abortion Politics. Politics & Policy, 41(6), pp.985-1011.

Kelly, K., 2012. In the name of the mother: renegotiating conservative women’s authority in the crisis pregnancy center movement. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(1), pp.203-230.

Kelly, K., 2014. Evangelical underdogs: Intrinsic success, organizational solidarity, and marginalized identities as religious movement resources. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 43(4), pp.419-455.

Li, H., 2019. Crisis Pregnancy Centers in Canada and Reproductive Justice Organizations’ Responses. Global Journal of Health Science, 11(2).

Ross, L., 2006. Understanding reproductive justice: Transforming the pro-choice movement. Off our backs, 36(4), pp.14-19.

Ross, L., 2017. Reproductive justice as intersectional feminist activism. Souls, 19(3), pp.286-314.

Ross, L. and Solinger, R., 2017. Reproductive justice: An introduction (Vol. 1). Univ of California Press.

Thomsen, C. and Morrison, G.T., 2020. Abortion as Gender Transgression: Reproductive Justice, Queer Theory, and Anti–Crisis Pregnancy Center Activism. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 45(3), pp.703-730.

Trumpy, A.J., 2014. Woman vs. fetus: frame transformation and intramovement dynamics in the pro-life movement. Sociological Spectrum, 34(2), pp.163-184.

OpenDemocracy articles: You can read about the undercover investigation on CPCs by Tracking the Backlash using the following links

How openDemocracy is tracking anti-abortion misinformation around the world


‘You could die and turn your husband gay’. How I learned to talk women out of legal abortions


Inside Italian public hospitals, I saw how a US-linked anti-abortion network is ‘humiliating’ women


Exclusive: Trump-linked religious ‘extremists’ target women with disinformation worldwide


Ecuador and Costa Rica promise to probe US-backed ‘crisis pregnancy centres’


[1] Largely Catholic, Christian and Evangelical

[2] A theoretical and analytical framework coined by twelve Black women in 1994. It combines reproductive health, rights and social justice while recognizing intersectional oppressions.