By Susie Cagle
I first heard about crisis pregnancy centers about four years ago, looking up a Planned Parenthood in New York. I was surprised to see one Planned Parenthood clinic surrounded by several "pregnancy centers" that promoted "abortion alternatives" and no women's health services -- contraception, Pap smears, and comprehensive counseling. I ended up getting my birth control at the Planned Parenthood on Bleecker Street, past the metal detector and security detail that are familiar to any U.S. clinic-goer, but I was always curious about what things were like on the other side.
The most difficult part of making my piece, "What Every Woman Should Know," was having to leave so much out.
Originally I was interested in pregnancy centers in and around Sacramento, California's capital and a somewhat conservative community. But when I found out the extent of Planned Parenthood's problems in the Bay Area -- controversy surrounding financial mismanagement that took out all of this region's seven clinics -- I decided to follow the story closer to home. I visited 9 local clinics before focusing on First Resort's three -- each of which is depicted in the comic with a different counselor.
There are about as many CPCs in the Bay Area as there are Planned Parenthoods; but across the country, CPCs outnumber Planned Parenthoods by nearly 5 to 1, and all abortion providers nearly 3 to 1. My budget and circumstances limited my reporting to the Bay Area, but this is hardly a local or even national issue. Crisis pregnancy centers exist all over Canada and the UK.
Some of the CPCs in America began receiving federal and local tax dollars in 2000, in conjunction with a move toward abstinence-only sex ed for teens. First Resort was operating a subsidized sex education program for kids in more than twenty local East Bay public schools, promoting abstinence pledges and handing out misleading abortion information until a parent took them to court, shutting the program down. (This particular arrangement was found to be in violation of state law.)
This is probably the best example of First Resort's reach, influence and ultimate goals.
I am ambivalent about the practice of "undercover" journalism. As a reporter I am not interested in deception, and so prefacing this project on lies -- small ones, but still -- was counterintuitive and sometimes troubling. I was not aiming to write an expose, but just to depict a woman's average visit at one of these clinics. By posing as a would-be patient I was able to gain a perspective I wouldn't have had if I'd said I was a reporter.
From the time I approached the building to the time I left, I took detailed notes and drew sketches in a small notepad, and took quick snapshots with my phone whenever possible. (First Resort requires patients to sign a waiver agreeing not to record within the counseling rooms.)
I didn't know what to expect, but it wasn't what I was expecting anyway.
The brilliance and danger of First Resort and other clinics like them is that they do not fit the image of "anti-abortion activist" that we have collectively formed over the last few decades. They are not screaming with pictures of dead babies; they are quietly buying Google ads and tiptoeing around telling you where to buy condoms. They are kind, intelligent, and generous. It is disarming, and effective.
At one First Resort clinic, I asked about acquiring Plan B emergency contraception. Plan B is over the counter for women 17 and over in the US -- no prescription necessary. The counselor affirmed for me that yes, it was technically contraception, "not the abortion pill." But, emphasized, "You have time to think about it. You have five days to take it."
This is true of one of the three kinds of Plan B on the market. The others have to be taken within three days -- and all of them are significantly less effective with each passing day. The medical suggestion for emergency contraception is "take it as soon as possible" not "think about it." That advice could easily leave a woman pregnant.
This instance could be easily explained, but there were other, stranger omissions of fact that I found troubling.
At another First Resort, a counselor showed me a diagram of a woman's genitals, pointing out the different parts for me as though I'd never looked in a mirror. This was not a medical chart -- no ovaries, no uterus, just the outside bits.
One counselor told me that the city health insurance San Francisco provides to poor single adults would not cover any sort of women's health services.
"That's shocking," I said.
"I know, I agree. We need that stuff!" she exclaimed, grinning.
We do, and that's why San Francisco does actually provide it. There's also a state program which covers those services for low-income women, but the counselor didn't mention that at all. (Neither of these programs fund abortions.)
I think some people expected this story to reveal some sort of gory, appalling details, the blood beneath the floorboards. For me, this version of reality is much more scary -- false information delivered with a smile, affirmations of choice that hide aspirations to dissuade, prevent and sabotage.
Susie Cagle is a graphic journalist in Oakland, CA. She has drawn for American Prospect, Truthout, and others. Her website is thisiswhatconcernsme.com.