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: “Smiling “doctors” advertising the CPC” sourced by Carly Thomsen.

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.

DAY SIX: I Sing of Arms and the Woman: Gendered Violence in Modern Mythic Reinterpretations

Hazel Atkinson

Featured image above: “Penelope at her tapestry loom with a handmaiden picking apples.” by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Mythic reinterpretations are a hot topic. Specifically, ‘feminist’ reinterpretations, which attempt to give a voice to the women of ancient tales who have, until now, largely been watching from the sidelines. The success of Circe (Madeleine Miller), The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy (Pat Barker), A Thousand Ships (Natalie Haynes) and Ariadne (Jennifer Saint) among others demonstrates the current appetite for such stories. We are ready, it seems, to hear something new.

But just how successfully have these myths been ‘reclaimed’? In one respect, it is refreshing simply to hear these old stories retold from a female perspective. To hear Circe’s voice bellow over that of Odysseus, or Ariadne speak for herself; to be addressed by the chorus of Trojan women. But does merely placing words in the mouth of a woman amount to a reclamation?

Gendered violence insistently pervades these retellings, whether in the horrific descriptions of sexual assault, or the casual murder of women as a consequence of wars fought by men. How have contemporary authors wrestled with this?

For Briseis, the narrator of Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, the answer is no. Barker’s novel does not shy away from the brutal treatment of women as a result of the Trojan War; Briseis watches a ‘woman raped repeatedly by a gang of men who were sharing a wine jug’, and gazes upon the corpse of Polyxena, sacrificed so that Greek men might return to their homeland: ‘the deep gash in her throat made her look as if she had two mouths, both silent. Silence becomes a woman’. Even after Achilles’ death, she acknowledges that it is his tale she has been playing a part in: ‘His story. His, not mine. It ends at his grave.’

Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships shifts between perspectives, encompassing all of the women embroiled in the Trojan War, but returning frequently to Calliope, the traditional muse of epic poetry, as her main narrator. Calliope bites at Homer for his reluctance to narrate the demise of women, lest he slip from his chosen genre: ‘Men’s deaths are epic, women’s deaths are tragic: is that it?’ She too dwells upon the pain endured by the various female characters, and throughout the book achieves her objective of making the ‘hidden women appear in plain sight’, as do all these authors who seek to bring their stories to light. But when those stories are still filled with the violence of war, of rape, of enforced childbearing, how helpful, indeed how ‘feminist’, are they for us as readers today?

As a young, female writer, these are issues that concern me directly. My work in progress is a collection of short stories, which also seeks to rehabilitate several of the women from Greek mythology. In this I have grappled not only with how to address the violence dealt out to these women whilst they are alive, but also with the fact that many of their stories end with suicide. The men who originally penned them were claiming to give them a voice. Written during the first century BCE, the most famous classical example is Ovid’s Heroides, a series of letter-poems, addressed from multiple women of Greco-Roman mythology to their respective male partners. Yet, because the endings of these women have overwhelmingly written by men, it is the male pen which therefore deals out such violence to them again and again. This violence is highly relevant in contemporary society, in which the string of murdered women in modern thrillers or crime dramas mirrors reality: on average, one woman is killed every three days by a man in the UK. Does repeatedly depicting the violence women face, even with the best of intentions, challenge or contribute to it?

My personal response has been to treat these myths as malleable, to reshape them into something which feels relevant to our modern world. Sometimes changing a story can draw attention to issues just as effectively as keeping it the same.

This is the power of ‘what if?’. What if Penelope grew bored of waiting, and decided to deal with the troublesome suitors herself? What if Canace did not hang herself from the rafters? What if Dido threw her memories of Aeneas onto that pyre instead of her own body? What if, what if, what if.

There is perhaps no right way to tackle the subject. In many ways, there is something more honest about the work of Pat Barker compared to the ‘softer’ approach of others; her novels may be bleak, but they are unafraid in their depiction of the realities faced by women in the ancient world. But I believe there has to be change, too. There has to be hope that if these women’s stories can be altered, their violent futures un-carved, then so can our own. That, after all, is the enduring allure of myth. That is the whole point of a retelling.

References

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls, (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)

Pat Barker, The Women of Troy, (Hamish Hamilton, 2021)

Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships, (Mantle, 2019)

Madeleine Miller, Circe, (Bloomsbury, 2018)

Jennifer Saint, Ariadne, (Wildfire, 2021)

Author’s Bio:

Hazel Atkinson is a recent history graduate and writer, currently working on her first book of short stories: a re-interpretation of Greco-Roman myth and is currently represented by Jenny Savill of Andrew Nurnberg Associates. She spends her days working in a bookshop and pottering around Edinburgh. You can find her on twitter @hazel_el_rose