Reproductive rights advocates have long been warning people seeking abortion of the dangers of crisis pregnancy centers. It turns out, abortion seekers are not the only ones at risk. Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) also target people who plan to give birth.
I found the first evidence of a CPC giving patient information to law enforcement to support the prosecution of a pregnant person. In this case, from Alabama in 2017, a woman gave birth to a healthy baby that tested positive for a metabolite of cocaine. She had visited the CPC earlier in her pregnancy for a free ultrasound.
I analyzed over 1,100 cases in which a pregnant or postpartum person was charged with a crime against their own pregnancy, for my forthcoming book, The Pregnancy Police: Conceiving Crime, Arresting Personhood. The book explores the criminalization of pregnancy, and the development of networks to surveil, report, and prosecute people for crimes against their own pregnancies. As I reviewed court records and police files, I saw an affidavit written to support the arrest of the woman who had visited the CPC. It indicated that a detective “obtained” a copy of her records from the CPC. The records included information about her contraceptive practices, the regularity of her cycle, and the date of her last menstrual period.
The idea of a pregnant person using cocaine may cause discomfort or even condemnation. While exposure to stimulants in-utero is associated with an increased risk of preeclampsia and premature rupture of amniotic sac, this is a far cry from the overblown “crack-baby” myths of the 80s and 90s that were used to justify the criminal prosecutions of Black mothers. Indeed, poverty has a greater influence on child outcomes than gestational exposure to cocaine. Not only does pregnancy criminalization rely on the reduced legal status of pregnant people, but it also makes pregnancy outcomes and maternal health worse. When doctors, nurses, or anti-abortion advocates pretending to be healthcare providers, become sources of information for law enforcement, they take medical privacy away from their patients and drive those patients away from care that they may struggle to access in the first place.
Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, there has finally been some attention paid to the criminalization of pregnancy – specifically the criminalization of abortion. One recent case from Nebraska saw a mother sentenced to two years in prison after helping her teenage daughter self-manage an abortion. The teenager’s friend, who knew about the abortion, told her mom, who called the police. Messages sent on Facebook were used as supporting evidence.
There have been numerous articles about the importance of digital security in the post-Dobbs world—period tracker apps, google searches, credit card transaction histories, texts, GPS data. Though so far, every documented arrest of a pregnant person for a crime against their own pregnancy was made after a human reported them to law enforcement. This digital information can be, and has been, used as evidence to support prosecutions.
CPCs are anti-abortion centers that often lure people in by offering free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and counseling, or by disguising themselves as real medical centers. CPCs are not medical facilities. Most do not provide medical care and rarely have actual healthcare providers on staff. Instead, they use misinformation to discourage or prevent people from seeking abortion care. CPCs have been found to use scare tactics to mislead abortion seekers, and have even intentionally lied to patients about the age of their pregnancies, so that they think they have more time to get in for an abortion appointment than they do in reality, ultimately pushing some abortion seekers beyond the legal limit where they live.
CPCs receive state and federal funding in the millions of dollars. The Trump Administration diverted $1.7 million from Title X family planning programs to Obria, a California CPC network “led by God.” At least 10 states divert TANF funds, meant to help low-income families and pregnant people, to fund CPCs. In the last decade, Texas CPCs received over $200 million in state funding– more than any other state. Those funds have skyrocketed to $165 million in 2022-2023 alone. There are around 2,500 CPCs in the United States, outnumbering abortion clinics by more than 3 to 1. In California, CPCs outnumber abortion clinics 11 to 2.
Crisis Pregnancy Centers are not typically governed by medical ethics or medical privacy laws because they do not typically provide medical care. To be sure, many people visit crisis pregnancy centers because they advertise desperately needed free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and infant care supplies. However, these meager offerings come with a price: surveillance and control.
Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, and pregnant people find themselves increasingly in need and under scrutiny, we need to send a clear message: crisis pregnancy centers aren’t safe, even if you don’t want an abortion.