DAY ELEVEN: Anti-Abortion Ideology on the Move: Examining Mobile Crisis Pregnancy Centers

You likely wouldn’t think of volunteers at crisis pregnancy centers—unregulated anti-abortion non-profit organizations that masquerade as health clinics—as the backbone of the anti-abortion movement. But this industry has become a primary mechanism through which the anti-abortion movement spreads its ideology writes Carly Thomsen. 

Carly Thomsen

Featured image: “Devil Bus” by Rayn Bumstead, graduate of Middlebury College, where she was co-organizer of the Queer Artists’ Collective. “Devil Bus” highlights the dangers of mobile CPCs and counters the happy, rosy, and warm aesthetics that mobile CPCs use to downplay their political agendas. 

When you think of who makes up the anti-abortion movement, you might imagine activists protesting in the streets. Or political lobbyists working with conservative lawmakers to enshrine their beliefs into law. Or religious leaders condemning abortion. You likely wouldn’t think of volunteers at crisis pregnancy centers—unregulated anti-abortion non-profit organizations that masquerade as health clinics—as the movement’s backbone.

But the crisis pregnancy center (CPC) industry has become the primary mechanism through which the anti-abortion movement spreads anti-abortion ideology. Indeed, the anti-abortion movement invests more time and resources into CPCs than any other aspect of their work. Such funneling of resources reflects the anti-abortion movement’s belief that CPCs are a useful site from which they can make mobile anti-abortion sentiment and enact what we ought to consider gender-based violence under the guise of care and concern.

Deception is central to this work. Scholars, reporters, and activists have illustrated what CPCs’ deceptive practices look like: disguising their political and religious motivations; implying that they offer abortions when they do not; opening near abortion clinics with the intention of confusing and thus hijacking those en route to the clinic; and peddling false information regarding abortion.

Scholars found, for example, that 80% of crisis pregnancy center websites listed in state resource directories for pregnant women include false or misleading medical information, including that abortion leads to breast cancer, infertility, and mental health issues, among other claims that have been repeatedly proven false.

Such inaccurate information is given credence by the aesthetic decisions of CPCs, which suggest that they are medical clinics when they are not. For instance, some CPC volunteers wear white lab coats and some CPC websites include medical imagery. Perhaps more worrisome, CPCs also increasingly offer free ultrasounds, although they do not make clear to clients that these ultrasounds are meant to be “non-diagnostic,” and therefore are not medical in nature.

Recently, the CPC industry has started to take their anti-sex, anti-abortion messages on the road, using mobile on-the-go buses and vans to extend their geographic and political reach. Mobile CPCs use many of the same strategies that brick-and-mortar CPCs use; however, their geographic slipperiness raises additional concerns beyond those associated with stationary CPCs.

First, mobile CPCs are able to park immediately outside of abortion clinics, allowing them to get closer to abortion seekers than brick-and-mortar CPCs can. Second, their mobility allows them to travel along routes that can constantly shift; this unpredictability and nimbleness makes more difficult possibilities for anti-CPC resistance. Third, mobile CPCs spread anti-abortion messages while in transit, quite literally moving around anti-abortion sentiment in ways that brick-and-mortar CPCs simply cannot. Fourth, if we listen to what the CPC industry tells us, mobile units are allowing the anti-abortion movement to more effectively target low-income women, women of color, and women in rural areas. Lastly, mobile CPCs will be even more difficult to regulate than brick-and-mortar CPCs.

If a city or state were to pass laws restricting the activities of CPCs in their jurisdiction—as most states and the federal government have done regarding abortion—mobile crisis pregnancy centers could simply drive to a neighboring area without these same laws in place, a problem that would remain even if passing legislation to regulate brick-and-mortar CPCs became common.

Despite these problems, there are no state or federal laws regulating mobile CPCs and there are no large-scale feminist campaigns directed specifically at mobile CPCs. In fact, we don’t even know exactly how many mobile CPCs exist. In the U.S., where the anti-abortion movement has utilized mobile CPCs more than in any other country, estimates of the numbers of mobile CPCs in circulation range from 170 to 260. (For context, there are approximately 2600 brick-and-mortar CPCs in the U.S. and just 700 abortion clinics.) While the U.S. is the epicenter of the CPC industry, CPCs exist in more than 100 countries. They are clearly a global problem. According to a Heartbeat International database, there are, for instance, 249 CPCs in the United Kingdom. And there are eight mobile CPCs outside of the U.S.

Regardless of the scale at which mobile crisis pregnancy centers operate, they raise concerns worthy of consideration by scholars, policy makers, and activists—especially because the anti-abortion movement is increasingly using mobile units to spread Evangelicalism, medical misinformation, and anti-abortion ideology. In so doing, mobile CPCs, like brick-and-mortar CPCs, raise serious public health and data privacy concerns.

Mobile CPCs, therefore, should encourage those of us on the political left to re-think the positive affects that tend to stick to mobility and movement. Mobile crisis pregnancy centers use their mobility to reproduce dominant power relations, further entrenching the sexism, racism, and classism of the status quo through remaking the spatiality of reproductive politics.

In short, mobile CPCs demonstrate that movement and mobility can thwart people’s opportunities to develop liberatory imaginaries, desires, and futures. While CPCs’ mobility has created new possibilities for the anti-abortion movement to capitalize on people’s marginalization and enact the kinds of gendered violence inherent within anti-abortion activism, it also could inspire new forms of abortion justice and anti-gendered violence activism. We might just have to hit the road to do it. 

Author’s Bio

Carly Thomsen is assistant professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Middlebury College. She is the author of Visibility Interrupted: Rural Queer Life and the Politics of Unbecoming from the University of Minnesota Press (2021) and directed and produced In Plain Sight, a documentary short that extends the arguments of this book. For more information about the film, visit http://www.inplainsightdocumentary.com. She’s currently completing a book about queer reproductive politics. Learn more about Thomsen’s research and teaching at www.carlythomsen.com.

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