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What I Learned Undercover at a Crisis Pregnancy Center

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I wasn't considering abortion. I wasn't considering adoption, or parenting, or childcare. I wasn't even pregnant, and I definitely wasn't scared -- at least not at first.

When I volunteered to visit multiple crisis pregnancy centers in Virginia, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) are the foot soldiers in the war against women. These anti-choice non-profits pose as women's health clinics then use lies and manipulation to dissuade pregnant women from considering their full range of reproductive options (ie: abortion and birth control).

CPCs use a variety of tactics to lure women into their buildings: they offer free pregnancy testing, are known to list themselves under "abortion" in online directories and search results, and may use misleading names with the hope that women will confuse them for legitimate healthcare providers. Once inside, women are treated to a carefully crafted program of manipulation designed to dissuade them from choosing abortion, birth control, and if they're not married - sex.

In Virginia, there are over 58 CPCs, more than double the number of comprehensive reproductive healthcare centers in the state. Still, most people are unaware that CPCs exist -- let alone understand the harm they cause. But I knew exactly what I was up against when I walked into "AAA Women for Choice" in Manassas, Virginia.

At first glance, the center resembled a doctor's office. The waiting room looked like it belonged to a pediatrician, complete with magazines and children's toys. The atmosphere provided a sense of credibility and legitimacy. Under different circumstances, I would have trusted this façade; it would have put me at ease.

After checking in, I was introduced to my "counselor," a conservatively dressed middle-aged woman who led me to one of the back rooms. She sat across from me with some forms on a clipboard I was not permitted to see. Much like the décor, the set-up reinforced the sense of professionalism and expertise. The consultation began with the standard questions: name, address, age, date of last period?

Right as I began to relax, the Q&A took a turn for the personal and invasive. "What is your relationship with your parents like?" "How is your financial situation?" "Have you told the father?" "What is his religion?" "Are his parents religious?" "How many people have you slept with?" "Would your parents be excited about a grandchild?"

As I sat there having my life probed, the purpose of the questions dawned on me. In case the test was positive, my "counselor" wanted to know which tactic to use to persuade me to continue the pregnancy -- exactly where my resolve was the weakest. Was there a loving Christian boyfriend who would make a great dad? Did I have kind supportive parents who would be excited by the idea of a grandchild? I knew I wasn't pregnant -- knew exactly what she was doing -- knew she wasn't a doctor. But my body reacted instinctively to her questions with guilt and shame. It felt like a kick in the gut when she asked if I had told my brother about the baby, and I felt a creeping sense of selfishness as I imagined the door slamming on my shared apartment, my twenties, my life. Would my parents want me to have this child? Would it matter?

The woman stopped between questions to comment on my answers and lie. "Oh, you've taken birth control. Let me tell you how that causes cancer and is the same a medication abortion." I was told abortion would scar me for the rest of my life -- would damage all of my future relationships and leave me "haunted." I was told the pill could cause breast cancer, that condoms are "naturally porous" and don't protect against STIs, and that IUDs could kill me. She lectured and lied to me for over an hour before I even received the results of my pregnancy test.

Also interspersed in the deception were subtle judgments of my life decisions. "So you do have some scruples about you," she said at one point, referring to my low number of sexual partners. One of the most disturbing comments came when I was pressed about the sexual experience leading to my visit, the reason I supposedly needed a pregnancy test in the first place. I told her an all too common story of acquaintance rape. I had been at a party, I said, severely intoxicated and unable to consent, "I didn't remember anything... I just wished it hadn't happened." Her response made it clear that the situation was my fault, "Oh so he took advantage of you. Well just don't do it again sweetie; just don't do it again." It made me sick.

It only got worse after a positive pregnancy test. At another CPC (the deceptively named "A Woman's Choice" in Falls Church, Virginia) I could hear two employees whispering before entering my room, plotting strategies to reveal the test results and best manipulate my reaction. When they did finally clue me in, my concerns were casually brushed aside and used as ammunition for their agenda: I could care for a baby with no job, my parents would certainly help, and I could absolutely handle the stress. They even argued that I could be a law student while pregnant: "It will probably be good for the baby," the woman said, "because you will be sitting down all of the time."

At this center and elsewhere, the conversations were always the same. It didn't matter how many times I said that l didn't want to be pregnant or be a mother the CPC staffer would continue to bully me. Their tactics were so blatantly manipulative that I should have been able to fight back. I wanted to have a response, some kind of self-defense. But I couldn't find anything to say. I am pro-choice feminist activist and I often discuss these kinds of difficult and emotionally sensitive topics at work and in school. Yet these women's so-called concern left me defenseless, struggling to find a response that didn't play right into their hands.

The way that these women treated me made one thing very clear: they didn't care about me, my future, my happiness, or my relationships. I was simply a shell that needed to be distracted and kept questioning until it was too late for me to make my own choices, and too late for me to decide if this is what I wanted -- or not. I truly can't imagine the pain that CPCs inflict on women who are actually struggling with an unintended pregnancy. I left each CPC feeling humiliated, terrified, and panicked... and I wasn't even pregnant.

I think we can all agree that it is wrong to shame someone seeking guidance. It is wrong to lie to someone in order to manipulate her future. It is wrong to treat women like walking wombs. Yet these tactics are core to the mission of Virginia's crisis pregnancy centers. They advertise to scared women who need help, and they claim to offer unbiased information, guidance, and support to those who need it. But instead CPCs treat women the way they treated me -- like disobedient children who need to be schooled in religion and saved from their own decisions. To them a woman is a vessel for a future baby, nothing more.

Ultimately, my undercover CPC investigations allowed me to witness firsthand the cruelty and deception at the heart of the anti-choice movement. As a result, I am even more dedicated to ensuring that every woman has the freedom to make her own deeply personal reproductive health decisions. Surprisingly, I also realized that I agree with Virginia CPCs on one point: when a woman walks through their doors, a life is at stake. But throughout all of my investigations, I was the only one who thought it was mine.