A two-pronged inquiry by Time and Bloomberg brought to light alarming new information about so-called crisis pregnancy centers and the way they handle confidential patient data.
Significantly in a post-Roe v Wade America, the new findings show your personal data is not safeguarded after visiting one of these centers.
At the moment, crisis pregnancy centers outnumber abortion centers in the US three to one.
Recently, crisis pregnancy centers have been bolstering their marketing strategies to reach women in their teens and early 20s via popular social media platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat.
What is a crisis pregnancy center?
With names such as Your Choice and Women’s Health Center, crisis pregnancy centers appear, at first glance, to be the kind of safe space to get unbiased information and support on terminating an unwanted pregnancy. However, many aren’t legitimate medical facilities.
One center, Bloomberg reports, urged a young woman not to seek an abortion, telling her: “Maybe you’ll miscarry and then you won’t have any problems.”
These centers promote parenting classes and adoption as alternatives to abortion, and often spread misinformation about abortion, sex and sexual health, according to Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization that provides sexual health care.
Additionally, Planned Parenthood claims some crisis pregnancy centers use techniques to guilt people out of seeking an abortion, such as insisting on providing an ultrasound. Many advertise free pregnancy tests, but these must be taken on location. There are also reports of scare tactics such as gory videos to convince women they should proceed with pregnancy.
All these centers have some kind of Christian affiliation. Most are part of country-wide networks that also offer training and resources to individual centers, a lot like parent companies would for local branches.
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Planned Parenthood provides a few helpful tips and resources for identifying which pregnancy centers in your area are legitimate and which are not.
Is your data safe at a crisis pregnancy center?
Recent findings point to no. After using the services of a crisis pregnancy center, many patients continued to receive calls and emails asking them about the status of their pregnancy. They were offered parenting classes and baby supplies they never asked for.
One young woman told Bloomberg that, after an appointment with a center, she asked what would happen to all the personal data she’d given them. She didn’t want people in her small town to know she was seeking an abortion. The answer wasn’t very comforting: “Well, honey, this is what happens when you have sex.”
The type of data crisis pregnancy centers collect includes pregnancy status, sexual and reproductive health histories, test results, ultrasound photos and any other info shared during consultations or parenting classes, which some centers make patients attend if they want to receive aid. Some centers may request data relating to past history of abuse and addiction.
Because these centers aren’t legitimate medical facilities, they are not bound by federal health data privacy laws, according to Time experts.
One young woman told the publication that, after realising the facility she’d visited was an anti-abortion clinic, she was worried for her data privacy. “They scanned my ID. They know where I live, they know my name, they have my […] license number. It felt like a completely different violation.”
Data gathered by crisis pregnancy centers is often centralised by parent organisations or the data management systems they use. One software package used by clinics can store the information of more than 20,000 patients for $100 a month. Their marketing copy states: “As we pool together what we’ve learned separately, we can begin to wield game-changing predictive and prescriptive analytics that lead to stronger outcomes.”
Advertising tactics are making anti-abortion centers ‘the new normal’
The Supreme Court’s ruling against Roe v Wade on 24 June set off trigger laws in 13 states making abortion illegal. According to analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, ten more states have restrictions on abortion that have gone into effect.
As abortion clinics close in many of these states, they are being replaced by crisis pregnancy centers. And it’s already becoming hard to tell them apart based solely on advertising.
According to Bloomberg, pregnancy help clinics are increasingly using online platforms such as Snapchat and TikTok to reach young people. The newspaper reported some staff at clinics receive training in Google Analytics, search engine optimisation and social marketing from parent organisations.
On Snap Maps, for example, all nine results displayed when you search “pregnancy test” in California are links to crisis pregnancy centers. If you search “abortion”, almost half (11 out of 24) of the results point to anti-abortion centers rather than legitimate healthcare providers.
A spokesperson for Snapchat said that, while the company has no control over those listings, they feel a “deep responsibility to ensure content on its platform is accurate”. After Bloomberg’s report, Snap Maps removed many centers from the app’s listings.
Still, crisis pregnancy centers are becoming increasingly tech-savvy, not just when it comes to advertising services to a vulnerable segment of the population. Recent information about what they do with patient data is raising significant concerns.
Data could be used to ‘police pregnant people’, non-profit claims
Women’s health advocates are worried these troves of data could be used against pregnant people. For example, if a crisis pregnancy center in an area where abortions are heavily restricted records a positive pregnancy test but no baby materialises nine months later, there could be legal consequences for the mother.
A spokesperson for Pennsylvania non-profit Women’s Law Project told Bloomberg the data gathered by anti-abortion centers could help with “policing and surveillance of pregnant people”. “If there’s an adverse outcome other than a full term, healthy baby,” they added, “that could invite investigation into what that person might have done to cause that.”
In three US states at the moment, private citizens can launch a lawsuit against an abortion provider, while three more states are considering penalties against the abortion seeker themselves.
According to a comprehensive breakdown by the Center For American Progress, nine states have laws that do not explicitly provide grounds for prosecuting someone seeking an abortion, but they could be interpreted that way by a politically motivated prosecutor.