By Laura Stewart
On a gray Saturday morning in May, eight people lined up outside a small, unassuming building on North Cicero Avenue on Chicago’s Northwest Side. In one of the windows below the building’s sign, “The Women’s Center,” pink baby clothes hung on a steel clothing rack.
They held signs toward passing traffic. “FAKE CLINIC,” one of the signs said. Some drivers honked in support; others slowed down to shake their heads or give a thumbs-down.
“Free lies inside!” yelled Lisa Battisfore, the protest’s organizer.
The Women’s Center is one of nearly 100 crisis pregnancy centers in Illinois that aim to dissuade women from receiving abortions. Crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs, are often faith-based, nonprofit organizations that provide certain care, such as pregnancy tests and limited ultrasounds, but are not licensed medical facilities.
Battisfore works to educate people about CPCs through her organization, Reproductive Transparency Now, which raises awareness through public protests and community outreach. She learned about CPCs while volunteering as an abortion clinic escort in and around Chicago. When she saw anti-abortion activists intentionally redirecting women away from abortion clinics and into CPCs, she realized there was “something really dark about what they were doing,” she said, and later founded Reproductive Transparency Now.
CPCs constitute the largest segment of the anti-abortion movement in the United States and vastly outnumber abortion clinics. There are more than 2,500 brick-and-mortar CPCs in the United States, according to a 2023 map by professors at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, and there are at least 170 mobile units in the country, a 2022 study by researchers at Middlebury College found.
The number of abortion clinics in the country is hovering around 800, the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization, determined. And that number is dwindling in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last year on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade.
As nonprofits that do not provide medical services or charge for care, CPCs operate in a regulatory no-man’s land, unmonitored by both consumer and medical regulators.
Abortion-rights advocates and some Democratic state lawmakers say these centers peddle medical misinformation and deceive women by physically diverting them away from abortion clinics and into their centers. As the ripple effect of the Dobbs decision continues to shutter abortion clinics throughout the country and Illinois becomes an oasis for abortion care, they say the need to regulate CPCs has intensified.
On July 27, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill that will provide some regulatory oversight by allowing patients to sue if they believe they were misled by a pregnancy center. The new law is temporarily on hold after a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction against it one week later. Judge Iain Johnston, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump in 2020, said “SB1909 is both stupid and very likely unconstitutional.” Johnston has not set a date for a hearing on the merits of the case.
The law amends the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act and allows the Illinois attorney general to investigate “limited services pregnancy centers” suspected of fraud and misinformation. It subjects CPCs that violate the act to a penalty of up to $50,000.
SB1909 really focuses on the fact that women are being deceived in these places,” said Democratic state Rep. Terra Costa Howard. “The opponents are trying to make the bill about freedom of speech and religion, and it has nothing to do with that,” she said. “It’s always been about something else. It’s about power and control.”
Opponents of the law say that anti-abortion volunteers are exercising their First Amendment rights when protesting on public property outside abortion clinics, and that CPCs are simply trying to help people who have limited options.
“There’s absolutely no threat whatsoever from these pregnancy resource centers,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of Pro-Life Action League, an anti-abortion organization that opposes abortion through direct action.
Pro-Life Action League is joining a lawsuit brought by the conservative Thomas More Society against SB1909. “It is a bald-faced violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Scheidler said.
“What counts as misinformation or disinformation or deception is decided by the pro-abortion attorney general of Illinois, so it’s completely subjective and unfair,” he said. “It’s impossible for people working at a pregnancy center to know what’s going to be considered deception.”
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with CPCs, striking down two provisions of a California law that required the centers to post notices informing patients of free state programs that may assist them with prenatal care and abortion. Under the law, unlicensed CPCs in California were required to disclose they were not state-approved medical centers.
National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, a national network of anti-abortion pregnancy centers, filed suit, arguing the law violated its members’ rights to free exercise of religion and free speech. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that both requirements of the law were unconstitutional regulations of free speech.
And the Illinois legislation is a similar violation, NIFLA said. “The state government has completely overstepped the bounds of any logical and relevant authority by inserting hateful politics into their governing bodies,” the organization’s founder and president, Thomas Glessner, wrote in an email statement.
“There is no basis for their blatant attacks on pregnancy centers, who provide all of their services for free for women and their families throughout Illinois,” he said. “They do so out of their deeply held beliefs of caring for one another and exhibiting human decency and compassion for those in need, something the leaders of Illinois are completely clueless about.”
But abortion-rights advocates say it is not a matter of free speech or compassion, but intentional deception and misinformation.
“They’re often pretending to be health care providers but have no licensed health care providers working in their facilities,” said Alison Dreith, director of strategic partnerships for Midwest Access Coalition, a fund that helps people access safe abortions in the Midwest. “They’re not providing health care, so they don’t have to comply with the laws that other health care providers do.”
While many CPCs present themselves as mom-and-pop shops, most are operated by large Christian organizations. According to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a progressive advocacy and watchdog group, more than 75% of CPCs in the United States are affiliated with four networks: Heartbeat International, Care Net, NIFLA and Birthright International.
“The perception around these centers is typically that they’re small, usually run out of a church by some church ladies who might be well-meaning, and they really want to help but they’re just not doing it in the most effective way,” said Shireen Rose Shakouri, deputy director of Reproaction, an organization that works to uphold abortion rights and advance reproductive justice.
“But what we actually have seen is that these are highly technical, highly funded operations that are usually based out of these tremendous conglomerate organizations that have really honed in on how they can be the most effective in tricking people or coercing people out of their pregnancy decisions,” she said.
While the exact history of these organizations is hard to trace, many credit Robert Pearson, a Catholic carpenter, with starting the first CPC in Honolulu in 1967. A few years later, he moved to St. Louis and started an organization to help people who wanted to start CPCs. Pearson wrote a manual, “How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center,” which includes advice on how to evade questions from women seeking abortions, among other deceptive strategies.
In some messaging from today’s CPCs, blatant scare tactics are hard to ignore, opponents say. “One of the first things they say is, ‘Death. You’re going to die. Abortion is fatal. Please don’t do it.’ Lots of claims of infertility, suicide, cancer, future children dying, never being able to love your future children because you will always be missing the first one that you killed,” said Battisfore, of Reproductive Transparency Now. “It scares people. They don’t want to die, they don’t want to get cancer.”
One pamphlet Battisfore acquired from someone who had been inside The Women’s Center in 2021 lists “complications” women can have with abortions such as “post-abortion syndrome,” “incomplete abortions” and “death.” It also says that, after an abortion, women can suffer from “recurring dreams of abortion experience … guilt about surviving, memory impairment, hostile outbursts” and other problems, without citing any evidence for those claims.
While there are risks associated with any medical procedure, studies show abortion-related complications are extremely low. According to a study by professors at the Drexel University College of Medicine, roughly 1 million abortions are performed in the United States each year, and the total abortion-related complication rate is estimated to be about 2%.
Data also shows carrying a pregnancy to term comes with a higher risk of death than having an abortion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 0.41 deaths related to legal induced abortions per 100,000 reported legal abortions between 2013 and 2018. In 2020, the maternal mortality rate was 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births.
CPCs couple medical misinformation with another strategy, abortion-rights advocates say: “clinic co-location,” in which CPCs situate themselves directly next door to abortion clinics.
In Flossmoor, Illinois, Aid for Women, a CPC with multiple locations in the Chicago area, is located next door to a Planned Parenthood clinic. Anti-abortion protesters stand outside Planned Parenthood on a daily basis. “This is spiritual warfare,” said one protester named Richard, who was protesting for 40 days straight in May as part of the anti-abortion 40 Days for Life campaign.
At the Flossmoor location, Planned Parenthood staff have a standing order. “If a patient comes in late, you should assume that they’ve been at the crisis pregnancy center and that they were diverted, through no fault of their own, and they should still be able to keep the appointment,” said Rianne Hawkins, director of strategy and political initiatives at Planned Parenthood of Illinois.
Alicia Hurtado of the Chicago Abortion Fund, an organization that runs a hotline and helps people from all over the country access abortion care, said her organization has countless stories of callers being deceived by CPCs.
Hurtado recounted a call she had with someone who had just left a CPC. “The staff in that CPC told her she was going to hell and physically wouldn’t let her leave for over three hours,” Hurtado said. “She was a mother and she had children to get back to, on top of the fact that she thought she was going to that clinic to get abortion clinic referrals and to hear more about her options in terms of getting an abortion because that was what was listed on the website.”
Another caller traveled to Illinois from her home state of Texas because a CPC in that state had shown her an ultrasound indicating the pregnancy’s gestation was nine weeks. After traveling to a clinic in Illinois, she learned she was really only five weeks along, Hurtado said.
“She could have gotten care in her home state but instead came all the way to Illinois just to find out that she was not as far along in her pregnancy as the clinic told her,” Hurtado said.
The Chicago Abortion Fund has seen a sharp uptick in the number of people they support since the Dobbs decision, Hurtado said. Last year, from January to June 24, the organization provided practical support, such as help coordinating and paying for travel and child care, for 257 people. From July to December last year, that number rose to 1,043 people. This year, the organization has already provided care for more than 1,600 people.
As more people travel across state lines in search of abortion care, the anti-abortion movement is funneling more money into CPCs. “They keep up with the times,” said Maureen Keane of She Votes Illinois, a Democratic statewide political action committee. “They’re ramping up the number of locations that they have.”
Groups like She Votes are preparing campaigns to educate people on how to file complaints against CPCs to the attorney general. But the sensitive nature of the experience may complicate the issue.
“It’s tricky because if you’re someone seeking an abortion and you end up in a crisis pregnancy center, society already has this stigma and shame around an abortion, and so you may not want to tell someone that you went through that experience,” Keane said. “I equate it to a rape victim. It’s like, ‘Who do I tell?’ and ‘Who is going to believe me?’”
But abortion-rights advocates are doing what they can, and the first step is letting people know that CPCs exist, they say.
On that gray Saturday morning outside the Women’s Center, a man in a car slowed down to ask the protesters a question.
“This is a fake clinic?” he asked.
“Yes. They do not provide abortions here,” Battisfore said.
“Oh, wow,” he said as he drove away, nodding his head.
Battisfore turned to the group. “That’s what this is about.”
Laura Stewart is a graduate student in the social justice specialization.