Crisis Pregnancy Centres and the risk they pose to women’s reproductive rights
BY: Colin Faulkner
In seeking abortion care at one Toronto location, specifically in Cabbagetown, a Google Maps search for “Cabbagetown pregnancy centre” produces unexpected results. Only one result comes up, a clinic called “Aid to Women”, which advertises services such as emotional support, information on prenatal development and birth, baby clothes, pregnancy tests, medical referrals, and post-abortion referrals. The search fails to show the abortion clinic, Cabbagetown Women’s Clinic, just next door. For women seeking to end their pregnancy, only the latter clinic will provide abortion services. This close proximity is one of many strategies used by facilities called Crisis Pregnancy Centres, or CPCs, to dissuade women from obtaining abortion care. CPCs across Canada are typically Christian-based, unregulated, and can be deceptively similar to an actual abortion clinic.
It is helpful to compare some facts about the average abortion clinic versus a CPC.
- Located in a major health care centre or a licensed Independent Health Facility (IHF).
- Funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health.
- Offers both medical abortion pills and surgical abortions up to 24 weeks.
- Offer or refer to post-op care by professional counsellors (such as those belonging to the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association).
- Subject to inspections and patient confidentiality.
- Majority have charitable tax status.1
- Run on charitable donations, and on occasion, government funding.
- Do not provide abortions or refer to abortion clinics.
- Unregulated: no substantive laws or regulations are in place to dictate how they operate. As such, CPCs are not subject to government inspection, CPC employees are not bound by confidentiality that licensed medical professionals are, and written permission is not required from a patient before releasing health information for marketing purposes.
- CPCs are not technically medical facilities, so they aren’t bound by the same laws.
- Volunteer counsellors are not accountable to professional standards or associations.
Although this comparison shows a distinct difference between the two venues, there are many other hidden characteristics of CPCs that go unchecked. In Toronto, women seeking abortion care during an unwanted pregnancy may be misinformed and misled by these organizations.
CPC Deceptive Tactics
CPCs ostensibly aim to help women, although this is often limited to women who choose to carry their pregnancy to term. Intentional or not, many CPCs engage in tactics that attempt to dissuade women from seeking an abortion.
Misrepresentation or misleading language is often employed, such as clinic names that resemble abortion clinics.1 In Toronto, two clinics-both named “Pregnancy Care Centre” (in North York and Scarborough) are easily mistaken as a government-funded clinic for pregnancy care. As alluded to before with Aid to Women, online search results can be misleading and have been gamed in the past through paid advertising to show up under searches for abortion clinics.1,2
Some CPCs are built right next to abortion clinics. Women report mistakenly entering fake health centres when attempting to visit the actual abortion clinics with which they have an appointment.3
A 2016 report of 180 CPCs by Joyce Arthur thoroughly evaluated misinformation which was disseminated online and in-clinic. For the 166 CPCs with websites, 99 clinics had no mention that they did not provide abortions. For example, Aid to Women states that they provide “honest abortion & abortion alternatives information”, but fail to mention that they do not provide the actual abortion care.1 55 clinics did not divulge that they were not a medical facility, and 39 promoted sexual abstinence as the ideal option for birth control among unwed women. 79 of the CPCs mentioned the negative psychological consequences, often termed “Post-abortion syndrome”, which is not recognized by the Canadian Medical Association.1
One of the major problems with the unregulated operation of CPCs is that in the past, some have obtained government funding and community support without disclosing their anti-choice or religious affiliation.
The 2016 report documented several instances of this behaviour. Earlier examples include a $64,000 grant to a CPC from the BC Ministry of Community, Aboriginal and Women’s Services. Similarly, a CPC in Sarnia, Ontario received an $83,800 Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) grant. It wasn’t until an activist, Fern Hill, reported their activity that the remaining funds were rescinded. The OTF sent Hill an explanation regarding the activity of CPCs, stating “we as a public funder, do not condone discriminatory practices and we have an anti-discriminatory policy in place to ensure that our grants do not fund such practices”.1
As recently as 2018, Canada Summer Jobs funding was offered to CPCs. Pro-choice activists launched a campaign that led to a policy change: an attestation was made to ensure funded groups follow the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It should be noted that although “abortion” is not mentioned explicitly in the Charter, multiple legal cases (like Morgentaler v R) have expanded the precedent of Charter rights, which informs future cases. As such, abortion has become a Charter right on the precedent of Section 7 of the Charter (violating anything that compromised a woman’s security of person) and past cases.4
This article supports a few key recommendations going forward. Although the CPCs are likely resistant to regulation, especially if politically motivated, it can be done in a common-sense manner. Regulation at the provincial or municipal level could ensure transparency in the operation and funding of CPCs. If a regulatory body was initiated, the following policies should be considered:
- As ~68% of CPCs have charitable tax status, they should be required to follow CRA regulations, which cite organizations as ineligible “if they disseminate biased or inaccurate information that is disguised as “education” or “counselling”.” This would ensure CPC websites and counsellors are presenting evidence-based information, in good faith.5
- CPCs offering similar services as abortion clinics except for actual abortion care should be scrutinized if they are in close vicinity to the abortion clinic. This practice can mislead women into entering the wrong building.
- The regulatory body should require CPCs to display a prominent disclaimer online and at the clinic that indicates that they don’t provide abortions, and whether they are willing to point people towards an actual abortion clinic.
- CPCs should not be publicly funded unless they adhere to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
- Actions should be taken to eliminate false or misleading public advertising, as the counselling services they provide, which are neither professional nor unbiased.
While CPCs claim they help countless women through the demanding and sometimes difficult process of pregnancy and motherhood, it should not be at the cost of transparency. A history of deceptive practices among CPCs further demonstrates a need for government regulation.
- Arthur J, Bailin R, Dawson K, Glenwright M, Reinhardt-Simpson A, Sykes M, et al. Review of “Crisis Pregnancy Centre” Websites in Canada. 2016 May;51.
- Pro-choice advocates want crisis pregnancy centres defunded and regulated – National | Globalnews.ca [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2019 Aug 7]. Available from: https://globalnews.ca/news/5328797/crisis-pregnancy-centres-abortion/
- Butler M. Fake Health Clinics [Internet]. National Abortion Federation. [cited 2019 Aug 7]. Available from: https://prochoice.org/fake-health-clinics/
- January 18 DGU, 2018. Gilbert: Student jobs grant program respects Charter rights | Ottawa Citizen [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2019 Aug 7]. Available from: https://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/gilbert-student-jobs-grant-program-respects-charter-rights
- Agency CR. How to draft purposes for charitable registration [Internet]. aem. 2012 [cited 2019 Aug 7]. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/charities-giving/charities/policies-guidance/guidance-019-draft-purposes-charitable-registration.html