Imagine this: you think you might be pregnant. You’re anxious, unsure of your options, and looking for help. You go to what you think is a trusted medical provider and sit down with a counselor. They ask you in-depth, deeply personal questions about your partner, your relationship, your faith, your sexual history, and more. They use phrases and questions intended to lead you to believe certain things, ultimately trying to convince you to carry your pregnancy to term– even if that’s not what you want or are able to do at this time in your life.
In our investigations, we found:
- 79% of fake clinics visited told investigators they would experience post-traumatic stress and other severe, negative mental health effects if they had an abortion.
- 77% of investigators who visited fake clinics reported feeling emotionally manipulated by the staff to whom they spoke.
- 100% of fake clinics visited used personhood-affirming language, like “baby” or “child,” instead of medically-accurate terminology like “fetus” or “pregnancy.”
- 78% of fake clinics investigators spoke to on the phone said they would discuss pregnancy options during an appointment but did not disclose their anti-abortion beliefs.
- 44% of fake clinics have both a primary website for potential clients and an alternative, anti-abortion website for donors and supporters.
Guiding Emotional Language
Fake clinics are skilled at using suggestive language and leading questions that fit their political agenda. The way counselors speak to clients comes off as concerned, compassionate, and empathetic– but, in reality, they only have one goal: doing whatever they can to convince that person to carry their pregnancy to term. A person who goes to a fake clinic might not even recognize that they are being manipulated or understand the impact of the– seemingly subtle– difference between saying “baby” instead of “fetus.” But fake clinics do, and they won’t hesitate to use it to their advantage.
Investigator: “The term “fetus” was never used, only “baby,” repeatedly and with an intentional, positive emotional valence, saying things such as, “When you have a baby, everybody will love the baby.” They likened it [the pregnancy] to a puppy and said it might be an angel later. They really personified it, saying that not picking abortion would be a chance to show it how ‘kind’ I was.”
– NARAL Virginia Investigator at Birthright in Woodbridge, Va.
Investigator: “She [the counselor] asked me about my feelings on abortion and whether I was considering an abortion if I was pregnant, and kept trying to fill in answers for me when I said I didn’t know… she would say things like ‘So you think it’s not safe’ when I asked if there were risks.”
– NARAL Virginia Investigator at A Woman’s Choice in Falls Church, Va.
Investigator: “[The counselor] often fed me answers to write on the sheet that were different from what I was saying to her. For example, I stated that my ex would prefer an abortion but would still want to be a father if I decided to have the baby, and then she said I should write down that I would feel pressure to get an abortion if I told him. Or, when I said that a benefit of abortion would be that a lot of my issues around being pregnant would be solved, she said to put down that my problems would appear to be solved.”
– NARAL Virginia Investigator at Mosaic Virginia in Lansdowne, Va.
Exploiting Personal Trauma and Experiences
When clients enter a fake clinic, they’re often asked to fill out paperwork that asks deeply intimate questions about their private lives. Fake clinics then use this information to exploit personal experiences or feelings that they can use against the client during counseling to steer them away from considering an abortion.
Fake Clinic: “I do know that people on the fence sometimes just need encouragement and support and um, you know, down the road, they often, you know, sometimes having a baby can turn their lives around cause they’ve got a purpose and someone to live for.”
– Staff at The Pregnancy Center of Central Virginia in Culpepper, Va.
Investigator:“[The counselor] responded to my Judaism by fearing that I’d be kicked out of home… and then went on to try to use Judaism as a reason not to get an abortion even though she wasn’t really sure what it entailed.”
Fake Clinic: “I’m just saying most of them, they don’t recommend abortion, even Jewish, I’m sure they don’t. I mean, your people are good people.”
– Visit between NARAL Virginia Investigator and Staff at Birthright in Woodbridge, Va.
Contrary to the anti-abortion movement’s attempt to manipulate religion to fit their political ideology, people of many faiths support abortion access. According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center, that includes people of Jewish faith: an overwhelming 83% of Jewish people surveyed believed that abortion should be legal in all or most cases .
Investigator: “When [the counselor] asked me why I was hesitant about carrying the pregnancy, I mentioned that I was on anti-anxiety medication. She told me how my anxiety would become much worse if I had an abortion and told me stories about how lots of women become depressed afterwards. Later, I also said that my mom is a breast cancer survivor. She then told me how abortion has been linked to breast cancer in ‘some people’ and I’d be at a greater risk for that, too.”
– NARAL Virginia Investigator at NOVA Pregnancy Help Center in Alexandria, Va.
Fake clinics are also known to manipulate a person’s personal relationships in attempt to highlight a support network that could support or influence their decision to carry the pregnancy to term.
Investigator: “They also told me that the disappointment I expected my family to feel would fade and the ‘baby’ could help me and my mother reconnect, even though I explained that I didn’t have a good relationship with her and she would be disappointed.”
– NARAL Virginia Investigator at Mosaic Virginia in Lansdowne, Va.
Fake Clinic: “What’s the best thing about him [your partner]?”
Investigator: “He always makes me laugh and I really appreciate that.”
Fake Clinic: “You know, I think he needs to have an equal say in that [decision]. You know, like you’re saying, don’t pressure him, but he really in fairness, you know, he should make the decision with you and maybe I will call you in a week and just see what you’re thinking.”
– Visit between NARAL Virginia Investigator and Staff at Hope Pregnancy Care Center in Williamsburg, Va.
Inflated Negative Emotions
The use of false narratives about post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional consequences from abortion are widespread among fake clinics. The drastic inflation of negative emotions after an abortion is intended to scare people who are considering abortion as an option. Many fake clinics even offer “post-abortion support groups,” implying abortion is a traumatizing experience that requires counseling afterwards. While people can have a variety of valid feelings after an abortion, the truth is this: the majority of people who have abortions don’t regret them and often describe their feelings as “relief”. Instead, they say they feel they made the right decision. A 2020 study published in Social Science and Medicine by the University of California San Francisco found that “five years after their abortions, 85% of women had either positive feelings, or none at all” .
Investigator: “I was told that my anxiety would get worse as a result of an abortion. I was told that 80% of women who get an abortion later get eating disorders, sleeping disorders, nightmares, depression, and that the result is feeling dead inside.”
-NARAL Virginia Investigator at A Woman’s Choice in Falls Church, Va.
Investigator: “Later on, [name redacted] the “nursing director” also told me that there is post abortion depression and post abortion syndrome, and that they are similar to post-partum depression. She told me that these things are very common and serious enough that you need therapy and counseling.”
– NARAL Virginia Investigator at Mosaic Virginia in Lansdowne, Va.
Manipulating Time and Delays
Abortion is essential healthcare where every day counts. In many states, including Virginia, anti-abortion politicians created restrictions intended to delay access to abortion care, such as mandatory waiting periods and provider restrictions. Until recently, only abortions very early in pregnancy could be performed outside a hospital setting, even though the same procedure could be safely performed at an outpatient doctors’ offices. Now, Virginia’s law more closely mirrors the medical community’s consensus on best practices.
But even still, trusted abortion providers are forced to turn patients away if the pregnancy is past a specific number of weeks. To manipulate these restrictions to their benefit, anti-abortion fake clinics often give their clients the impression that their pregnancy is further along than it actually is, in order to mislead them into thinking abortion is no longer an option. Fake clinics may also do just the opposite– telling clients that they have plenty of time to make a decision, in hopes the client unintentionally “runs out the clock” and therefore can’t access abortion care later in their pregnancy.
Investigator: “I’m kind of just trying to find out what all my options are and like try to make a good informed decision, because, like, right now, I’m just kind of swimming and overwhelmed.”
Fake Clinic: “Yeah and that’s totally understandable. One thing to just consider is also you have time to make that decision… you would like to take time, you don’t want to make a decision hastily, one you can’t undo and, later, you might regret. Just consider that and remember you do have time.”
– Phone call between NARAL Virginia Investigator and Staff at the Pregnancy Care Center in Martinsville, Va.
Before the enactment of the Reproductive Health Protection Act in Virginia, when the above visit was made, abortions could only be legally performed by reproductive healthcare clinics up until the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After 12 weeks, it became significantly harder to access abortion care due to additional barriers enacted by anti-abortion politicians, to the point where a patient may not be able to access care at all after the pregnancy progressed to a certain point.
Investigator: “The [counselor] reassured me I had time to make a decision when I was allegedly 10 weeks pregnant, potentially trying to give me a false sense of security so I would not be able to have an abortion because I had waited too long.”
– NARAL Virginia Investigator at the Kiem Center in Virginia Beach, Va.
Hiding Their True Agenda
Fake clinics position themselves as comprehensive, unbiased healthcare providers, but, in reality, they have a very specific ideological agenda: strip away a person’s autonomy over their personal, private medical decisions by manipulating, lying, and fear-mongering. By gaining the trust of vulnerable Virginians seeking help, their true agenda is hidden under the guise of providing compassionate counseling and information.
For example, see how many times this fake clinic employee tells our NARAL Virginia investigator that they will discuss all their options during a single phone call:
Fake Clinic: “We just get some basic information from you and we can do the pregnancy test and, just uh, explain all the options and…
“Well, yeah, we can help you, what we… what we try to do is help you understand all of your options that you have if you’re pregnant…
“Well, we have a lot of information here, again it would be a lot better if you could come into the center and meet one-on-one with a counselor. It’s – we just have so much information here that we could show you… we could show you information online, we have a lot of very educational videos, and information that we could provide you so you have all your options…
“And we’re here to help you. We’re here to support you no matter what you decide…”
– Staff at the Pregnancy Center of Central Virginia in Albemarle, Va.
In 2019, CareNet — a massive fake clinic network that includes 47 affiliates in Virginia– boasted that 90% of people who called in stated they were “actively seeking or considering an abortion,” yet an overwhelming 80% of people were then dissuaded from seeking abortion care after a visit to the fake clinic .
When people call seeking abortion care, they should be treated with dignity and their decision should be respected. Instead, fake clinics prey upon clients’ vulnerabilities and put their own ideology ahead of their client’s needs.
To further hide their anti-abortion agenda from the general public, fake clinics are known to operate multiple public-facing personas: one to appeal to potential clients and another to appeal to their fellow anti-abortion zealots. Among the 59 fake clinics NARAL Virginia identified, further investigation found that almost half (26) had a second website. To see what we mean, compare these examples:
Warrenton Pregnancy Center (Warrenton, Va.)
About Us on client-facing site: “We strongly support every woman’s right to receive sound, medically accurate information on all the choices available to them prior to making a decision regarding their pregnancy. We inform and you decide.”
Who We Are on donor-facing site: “We firmly believe that every life is created with a purpose, by God and in His image. We are called to be a voice for His tiniest and most innocent children… we help walk her [the client] through the process by providing resources and referrals that make life-affirming options more possible to her and her family.”
ComfortCare (locations in Waynesboro, Staunton, and Lexington, Va.)
What We Do on client-facing site: “At ComfortCare Women’s Health Our Free and Confidential Services Include: Nurse’s Consultation and Pregnancy Testing, Pregnancy Confirmation, Medical Consultation, Peer Counseling On Pregnancy Options. Your appointment is highly individualized to make sure we address your specific needs and questions. Every ComfortCare patient is given the attention and respect she deserves.”
Our Why on donor-facing site: “We surrender to the Holy Spirit that He may be her guide and source of empowerment to choose life for her and her child. Ultimately, we desire to see a day that every woman can stand confidently and choose the gift of an abundant life, grounded in Christ.”