Behind-the-scenes at Gainesville’s crisis pregnancy centers.

Illustrations by Zach Gasparini.

Located in an unassuming shopping plaza off SW 2nd Ave just before it becomes Newberry Road, is A Woman’s Answer Medical Center. Inside the brick storefront, angels stare unblinkingly from behind the reception desk. A miniature Noah’s ark perches on a table nearby. Two women who look to be mother-and-daughter sit in the waiting area.

Despite its name, you won’t find any medical doctors at the center. That’s because A Woman’s Answer, which opened its doors 10 years ago, is a crisis pregnancy center (CPCs), a term for a usually faith-based clinic whose “mission is typically to prevent abortions by persuading women that adoption or parenting is a better option,” according to the American Medical Association. Since Roe v. Wade struck down criminalization of abortion in 1973, the number of CPCs in operation across the U.S. has ballooned. In Florida for example, there are approximately 105 CPCs for 71 abortion clinics, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

And A Woman’s Answer is not alone in Alachua County. National Women’s Liberation has identified two other centers: Catholic Charities — which runs a clinic called Caring Choices Pregnancy and Adoption Services located in its building at 1701 NE 9th Street — and Sira, which is next to Planned Parenthood on NW 13th Street.

Activists say Sira and A Woman Answer both appear like they would offer abortions. The former advertises vague “pregnancy options,” the latter “life-affirming options.” Sira acknowledged it was a crisis pregnancy center, while A Woman’s Answer told The Fine Print [they weren’t familiar with the term “CPC,”] even though their website states, “Please note we are a crisis pregnancy center, not an abortion clinic.” A Woman’s Answer contended they do not provide incorrect information about abortion.

Sira is located next to the Planned Parenthood on NW 13th Street. Photos by Noah Davalos.

Caring Choices, on the other hand, is adamant they do not offer or appear to offer abortions. As well, explicit references to abortion are not made in any of their printed or online material. Instead, the center advertises “life-affirming choices.”

“We tell them up front that we are not an abortion clinic, and we do not refer for abortions,” said Kayla Dever, a pregnancy counselor at Caring Choices. “But if they want information about it, we’re happy to talk to them about abortion. We do not intentionally spread misinformation about abortion.”

A tour of Sira and A Woman’s Answer, as well as a review of its website, show the clinics do promulgate a range of misinformation, from incorrect information about abortion to spun facts that exaggerate the risks associated with the procedure.

For instance, A Woman’s Answer claims on its website that abortion can cause a host of physical and psychological risks, such as “damage to the womb or cervix,” “excessive bleeding,” as well as alcohol and drug abuse, “relationship problems,” eating disorders and death.

While these risks are exaggerated, it is possible for abortion to cause damage to the womb or excessive bleeding. But medical experts say the changes of health risks like these are incredibly rare. According to the American Pregnancy Association, “serious complications occur in fewer than 1 out of 100 first trimester abortions and approximately 1 out of every 50 late term abortions.”

Erica Bales, who works on National Women’s Liberation’s Abortion and Birth Control Committee, said crisis pregnancy centers “are dangerous because they take away people’s right to make fully informed health care decisions for themselves and their families.”

Activists say that to present the potential risks of abortion without this context is misleading.

Erica Bales, who works on National Women’s Liberation’s Abortion and Birth Control Committee, said crisis pregnancy centers “are dangerous because they take away people’s right to make fully informed health care decisions for themselves and their families.”

When asked about these claims, Carol Cullen, the office manager, said A Woman’s Answer will provide information about abortion to anyone who is curious and that “we do not intentionally mislead anyone.” They view their mission as spreading the word about alternatives to abortion.

“We live in a world where not a lot of options are talked about,” Cullen said. “People are only brought up with abortion as an option and haven’t been taught about adoption, single parenting, married parenting. So we try to balance the scales a little bit.”

Unlike legitimate abortion clinics, CPCs receive both direct and indirect funding from the state of Florida. For years, Bales said that proceeds from the bright yellow “Choose Life” license plates have gone to the crisis pregnancy centers across the state.

Then in March 2018, Rick Scott signed a bill into law which provided CPCs with state-funding through the Florida Department of Health. This funding is contingent on a few factors, such as policies that are supposed to prohibit CPC employees or volunteers from evangelizing or praying with clients, but activists who have gone to these clinics say this often happens anyway.

A Woman’s Answer Medical Center.

A Woman’s Answer said they receive around $1,641 a month from the government. This funding goes to services such as “Earn While You Learn,” in which a volunteer will sit with an expecting client to watch videos about what the first two years of a child’s life might look like. In exchange, single parents receive ten credits that they can spend on baby clothes and supplies at the clinic’s on-site store. Parents who have a partner will receive twenty credits.

After ultrasound appointments, Cullen said patients receive pictures of their baby, along with a blanket, hat and booties, if they choose to take them. Volunteers can also give patients tips like chewing ginger for nausea in lieu of medical advice.

“I have a lot of grandma-wannabe volunteers,” said Shirley Lane, the executive director at A Woman’s Answer.

Sira was incorporated in 1974. The clinic, which is now located in a nondescript house right next to Planned Parenthood, calls itself Gainesville’s “compassionate pregnancy center.”

Women at the clinic will be tended to by “client advocates” not medical professionals,] though Katherine Gratto, the director, said this depended on the client. Despite advertising “pregnancy options” on a signboard on NW 13th Street, Sira’s commitment of care states that “we do not offer, recommend, or refer for abortions or abortifacients, but are committed to offering accurate information about abortion procedures and risks.”

During an appointment, Sira — which is Arabic for “life” or “journey” — gives women seeking an abortion a variety of leaflets with information. One such leaflet, titled “Before You Decide,” walks clients through the stages of fetal development, and the side effects of emergency contraception and abortion at all terms, with an emphasis on the “risks” of each method. Pictures of baby toes and downtrodden women dot the pamphlet.

In one instance, the pamphlet cites research that couples who choose abortion are at increased risk for problems in their relationship. This appears to be a case of chicken-and-egg: According to a 2013 article in BCM Womens Health, data from a five-year study found that a pre-existing relationship problem was one of the top three reasons women sought to terminate their pregnancy.

When asked whether Sira misleads women about abortion, executive director Katherine Gratto pointed to the back of the pamphlet, which lists five pages of sources.
“We can’t be everything to everybody,” she said. “But we try to do our best to help people with their needs.”

In response to hearing stories from women who say they were provided with misinformation or felt pressured into continuing their pregnancies, NWL has held pickets outside Sira and hosted phone banks to spread the word. They’ve also created a protest kit so that other members in the community can organize their own event.

Bales said if CPCs were straightforward about their mission, they might be less problematic. Instead, they often purport to offer healthcare when they really don’t.

Jennifer Boylan visited Sira multiple times when she was pregnant in 2018. Though she went for an ultrasound, she said her visit was more in the spirit of “we’re really excited that you’re pregnant, and we want you to check it out with us for a while.” About halfway through her meeting, Boylan said a volunteer started counseling her on religion, even though she did not request it.

“If I had to summarize my experience, I would describe it as very friendly older ladies with smiles that told me that if I got an abortion, which I never said I wanted to get, I would go to hell,” Boylan said. 

Katie Frost, Molly Minta and Federico Pohls contributed writing and fact checking to this report.