Raquel and her husband were floored when she learned she was seven weeks pregnant, earlier this year. It was unplanned and unwanted.
“I run two very successful businesses. I work 80-plus hours a week. It was just the wrong time for everything,“ said Raquel, who is being identified by her middle name because she fears repercussions in her small community outside of Vancouver.
She had suffered severe postpartum depression after the birth of her second child, and she couldn’t go through that again.
She was absolutely certain she wanted an abortion.
So she searched online for abortion services and a place called Hope for Women in Langley, B.C., was among the first hits. Its website offered “abortion support.” Unbeknownst to her, it was a pregnancy centre that did not offer abortions, but would, she says, try to guilt her into seeing the pregnancy through.
It is one of many crisis pregnancy centres across Canada and the U.S., many of which have been accused by pro-choice and women’s rights groups of spreading misinformation about abortion and using covert methods to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies.
The centres, often Christian-based, say they do indeed offer women choices, and provide support in the form of counselling and necessities for babies like diapers and clothing.
But as abortion access has garnered renewed scrutiny, Canadian pro-choice groups are urging governments to cease providing hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for these groups, and to start regulating them.
At the Langley pregnancy centre, Raquel said she was paired with a counsellor who she said urged her to have an ultrasound to “see the heartbeat” after she said she was planning to have an abortion. Raquel said the counsellor heavily pushed adoption, and she left feeling even worse than when she arrived.
Hope for Women’s executive director, Jared White, told Global News in an interview that the centre’s goal is “not to impose anything on these women. It’s to help them explore what they want to do” and that clients are asked to sign a form that states the centre does not provide abortions. White also said the group’s counsellors would only offer ultrasounds to clients who wanted to see how far along they were, not to hear a heartbeat.
(Shortly after speaking with Global News, a disclaimer was added to its website stating that it does not provide or refer for abortions.)
Raquel says she did sign a form at the centre, but that she was so emotionally distressed that she does not recall exactly what it said. She does not recall whether it said anything about not offering or referring for abortions.
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Raquel eventually had an abortion in Vancouver. Looking back, she says the pregnancy centre experience offended and shocked her.
“I hope that in the next little bit that they do not exist,“ Raquel said. “Because no woman should have to go through what I went through.”
Joyce Arthur is the executive director of the B.C.-based Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada who has for years maintained a database of more than 100 pregnancy centres across the country deem by her group as anti-choice. It’s around the same number of abortion clinics across the country.
She and her supporters track which groups get government funding, how much they get, and which have charitable tax status.
In 2016, she authored a study based on a review of websites for 166 crisis pregnancy centres across Canada that concluded they provide misleading and inaccurate information about abortion, including that they are linked to breast cancer.
“They’re in the business of misinforming women about abortion and sexual health matters,” Arthur told Global News. “They’re about undermining women’s charter rights to abortion. And it’s just not right, it’s not appropriate.”
Arthur and other advocates lead ongoing letter-writing campaigns and other advocacy efforts to try to urge provinces and cities from providing any funding for pregnancy centres.
Her efforts got some traction in recent years by fuelling the federal government’s 2018 clampdown on funding for anti-abortion groups who applied for grants under the Canada Summer Jobs program.
But many provinces and municipalities are continuing to fund crisis pregnancy centres.
“It’s a bit of a whack-a-mole trying to stop government funding,” Arthur said.
Johnson has also been calling for regulation of the pregnancy clinics, whereby municipal bylaws could force them to be transparent with clients or adhere to some sort of standard and review process.
But regulation might be difficult to implement. Some U.S. states have tried to regulate the thriving crisis pregnancy industry there. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a law proposed by California that would have required pregnancy centres to inform their clients about the availability of government-funded abortions. The Court ruled that such a rule would violate the free speech of the faith-based groups.
U.S. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the ruling a “grave step backwards” for women and that it failed to “recognize or respect a woman’s constitutional right to comprehensive health care.”
Lauren Johnson, a self-described abortion doula based in Red Deer, Alta., who also runs a pro-choice Facebook page, says that smaller communities like hers do not have the same access to abortion that women located in other cities have. She said it’s difficult to even get a prescription for the abortion pill Mifegymiso, which is meant to be used during the early stages of pregnancy, let alone surgical abortions.
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Johnson said she had to travel nearly two hours to Edmonton for her own abortion, and other women from there have to do the same, or go to Calgary. This often requires taking time off work and paying for extra travel expenses.
She said that the crisis pregnancy centre in her area is thriving in part because of the stigma that exists in the community around abortion, and the lack of abortion access. Johnson said she has spoken with women who have gone to the crisis centre who have felt unheard, guilty, and ashamed afterwards.
“Abortion is not the option for absolutely everybody, but for the people who are actively seeking to terminate a pregnancy, it’s incredibly detrimental and a disservice that they are doing to the area,” she continued. “They are denying women the right to make the choice on their own, free of guilt, free of intimidation and free of misinformation.”
White from the Hope for Women pregnancy centre, which does not receive government funding, said he would not necessarily support the regulation of centres like his, especially if such attempts to do so were politically motivated.
“Most of the people who come through our doors who are looking for abortions do end up going on and having abortions. Many of those people come back to us afterwards because there’s really not a lot of help in the community for women after they have an abortion,” White said.
“We are going to keep loving women and serving them and helping them any way we can, and I don’t think regulation would stop that.”