Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers in Vermont Provide Misleading Information, Critics Charge | Health Care | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers in Vermont Provide Misleading Information, Critics Charge

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Published July 27, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated August 9, 2022 at 4:24 p.m.


Rachel Sharp and Traven Leyshon picketing in Barre - TERRY J. ALLEN
  • Terry J. Allen
  • Rachel Sharp and Traven Leyshon picketing in Barre

Google "abortion in Vermont," and a list of locations pops up. You'll find Planned Parenthood branches in eight towns, from Burlington to Brattleboro. But you'll also notice listings that may be less familiar. Among them: Aspire Now in Williston, Care Net Pregnancy Center of Central Vermont in Barre and the Women's Center in Middlebury.

Their websites feature photos of attractive young women in aviator sunglasses and denim jackets, as well as earnest-sounding questions: "Unplanned pregnancy?" "Considering abortion?" The sites offer assurances of "professional healthcare for women" and "caring, compassionate, confidential" services: pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, parenting classes, peer counseling.

"Whether you want to learn more about all your pregnancy options, need a supportive place to make a decision, are looking for information on the abortion pill or abortion procedures in Central Vermont — start with us," reads the website of Care Net.

At the bottom of the page is another message, in smaller text: "We do not provide or refer for terminations or emergency contraception." Similar messages appear on other Vermont center websites.

These places are so-called crisis pregnancy centers, and in states such as Vermont, where abortion is legal and likely to remain so, they may well be the next front in the war over reproductive rights. Combining internet savvy with ambiguous pitches and sometimes misleading or outdated information about the perils of abortion, the centers represent an under-the-radar arm of the anti-abortion movement. And they appear poised to expand their efforts in the state.

At least seven crisis pregnancy centers — sometimes called pregnancy resource centers — operate in Vermont, according to the Crisis Pregnancy Center Map, a project of the University of Georgia's College of Public Health. In addition to Aspire Now, Care Net and the Women's Center, the state is home to First Step Pregnancy Clinic in Rutland, True North Pregnancy Resource Center in Bennington, Branches Pregnancy Resource Center in Brattleboro and Birthright of Burlington. Another center, Futures Pregnancy Care in Lyndonville — founded in 2020 — is not listed on the map but is affiliated with pro-life groups and does not make referrals for abortions.

The centers, nonprofit organizations that rely on Christian-based messaging and support from larger pro-life organizations such as Heartbeat International and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, often depict themselves as medical centers — offering services such as ultrasounds and engaging volunteer medical directors and nurses. Roughly 2,600 such centers exist in the United States.

Leaders and supporters of these centers say they provide pregnant women with useful resources and support should they choose to have a baby and are up-front about not making referrals for abortions. They say they offer free classes and goods such as diapers and baby clothes to women in need and claim to have high client satisfaction rates.

Critics, though, say these centers misrepresent themselves to the public and provide materials and advice that overstates the risks of abortions, including through blatant misinformation. In one instance, Seven Days obtained a brochure being offered by a center that contained information that a University of Vermont Medical Center specialist later judged as plain wrong. In speeches at local churches that were shared on social media, several centers' directors referred to them as "ministries" and gave inaccurate information about the physical and mental health effects women experience when they have an abortion.

"Part of what they say they're doing is providing greater resources for people ... to be parents," said Carly Thomsen, an assistant professor of gender studies at Middlebury College who has studied crisis pregnancy centers across the country. "The problem with that line of reasoning ... is that in order to provide resources to people in need, you would not need to deceive people to come into your centers by suggesting that you provide information about abortion."

An Appeal for Support

Crisis pregnancy centers are partly supported by taxpayers in at least a dozen states — but not in Vermont. Pregnancy centers here instead rely on a variety of funding sources, including businesses, individuals and churches.

Centers' revenues and expenses vary, according to their Form 990 tax filings, which nonprofits are required to complete. On the higher end, Aspire Now reported $261,114 in contributions and grants in 2019 and $237,739 in expenses, more than half of which went to employee salaries and benefits. On the lower end, Care Net reported $79,046 in revenue and $66,379 in expenses in 2020.

In recent speeches at Vermont churches, the directors of two pregnancy centers shared the values that undergird their efforts.

Carmen Menard, executive director of Futures Pregnancy Care in Lyndonville, told an audience at the Lyndon Center Baptist Church in June 2021 that her organization asks everyone who arrives for a pregnancy test about their faith. Menard said the center also provides biblical counseling and faith-based classes in a video posted on the church's Facebook page.

If women contact the center looking to terminate their pregnancy, Menard said, her staff tells them that the center provides pregnancy services, not abortions. But before callers hang up, center staffers are sure to "go through all the risks of abortion, so they know that their life is in danger and their child is in danger," Menard said. One of those risks, she said, may be infertility.

Menard warned churchgoers about abortion pills available down the road at Planned Parenthood in St. Johnsbury. "The sad part of it is, it's not safe," Menard said in the video. "These women can bleed to death at home by aborting their babies."

Lauren MacAfee, an ob-gyn at the UVM Medical Center, said in an email that it is false to claim that abortions by approved methods are dangerous, and that scientific studies refute such assertions.

A 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that medication abortion is safe, has a very low risk of complications and has not been associated with difficulties getting pregnant in the future.

In an interview, MacAfee said patients have come to her after going to crisis pregnancy centers for ultrasounds and encountering staff members who tried to dissuade them from getting an abortion.

These centers "are not always super forthcoming with their intentions," MacAfee said.

In church speeches in Barre last year and Moretown this year, Cindy Tabor, executive director of Care Net, asked congregants to help the center "continue to do what we do for God" through monthly donations, videos posted on YouTube show.

Tabor described the center's decision to hire a marketing firm to create a more modern website and employ search engine optimization, or SEO, so that the center would be listed higher in results when someone searched abortion terms online.

"When a desperate woman searches on her phone for help — 'Help, I'm pregnant. What do I do?,' 'abortion,' 'pregnancy,' any of those words — basically, we come up, and ... they contact us," Tabor said.

After a Seven Days reporter asked her about the speeches, Tabor met with her board of directors and provided a written statement.

"SEO is standard marketing practice by for-profit and non-profit businesses," the statement reads in part.

Care Net uses keywords related to abortion because the center provides "after-abortion support to women who need a place to talk about their experiences and for those experiencing regret," and to reach women who may not want the procedure but lack the financial means or support to carry a baby to term, Tabor said in the prepared statement.

"It's their choice and if they want to continue their pregnancy, we can provide the support they need with education, material aid, resources and community referrals," she said.

'Are You Christian?'

Julia Zimmerman with  other picketers at Care Net Pregnancy Center of Central Vermont in Barre - TERRY J. ALLEN
  • Terry J. Allen
  • Julia Zimmerman with other picketers at Care Net Pregnancy Center of Central Vermont in Barre

Kate Brown of Montpelier, who is active in the movement to preserve reproductive rights, made an appointment at Care Net in Barre in late June to learn more about its practices. She told the center the truth, she said — that she had one child and didn't want to have any more.

In a phone call before her appointment, a staff member mentioned that the center offers free diapers and clothing and that women could receive more items by participating in pregnancy and parenting classes through an online portal called BrightCourse. Brown said she explored the online classes, and each was paired with a biblical worksheet.

During the intake portion of her appointment, Brown said, she was asked a series of questions, the first of which was "Are you Christian?" Though Brown said she was not pregnant, the staff member had her take a drugstore-style pregnancy test and provided information about parenting classes. Before leaving, Brown picked up a brochure.

On a page titled "Abortion Risks," the brochure asserts that "the risk of breast cancer almost doubles after one abortion, and rises even further with two or more abortions" and that "approximately 10 percent of women undergoing elective abortion will suffer immediate complications, of which approximately one-fifth are considered life-threatening." The pamphlet also cites mental and emotional risks of abortion and includes a page about the unreliability of prenatal testing.

Upon reviewing parts of the pamphlet, MacAfee, the UVM Medical Center specialist, said the abortion risks that it describes have been debunked by recent studies, while the information about prenatal testing is based on data more than 35 years old.

"Our society already struggles with low health literacy and understanding of reproductive [and] sexual health, and these kinds of pamphlets make it even harder for patients to know who [or] what to trust," MacAfee said.

Thomsen, the Middlebury professor, cited a landmark 2020 study, known as the Turnaway Study, in which researchers at the University of California San Francisco tracked nearly 1,000 women, some of whom had received abortions and others who were turned away because they were past an abortion facility's gestational limit. The study, which followed its subjects for more than five years, found no evidence that abortion caused harm to mental health or well-being. Five years later, more than 95 percent of the women who had undergone abortions still felt that it had been the right decision for them, the study found.

Care Net's medical director, Brian Sargent, is a doctor of osteopathy who worked as a staff physician at Gifford Health Care and a provider of family medicine in Chelsea before retiring last year. He contacted Seven Days after a reporter emailed questions about the brochure to Tabor, the center's director.

"The data regarding the link between abortion and breast cancer is still evolving," he wrote in an email, but because there is no definitive link, he said he would direct Tabor to discontinue use of the pamphlet.

Sargent said he was not familiar with the Turnaway Study.

Crisis pregnancy centers don't just serve women. A male student at Champlain College recently went to Aspire Now in Williston to be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia after he stumbled onto the center via a Google search. The student, who asked not to be named for privacy reasons, said he had first tried to make an appointment at Planned Parenthood in Burlington but encountered a three-week wait.

At Aspire Now, a staff member showed him graphic photographs of sexually transmitted diseases and said the only way to avoid them was abstinence, the student said. The student, who is gay, said he felt judged when answering the staff member's questions about his preferred sexual partners and the types of sex he had. "At no point was there a question of, 'Are you comfortable?'" the student recalled.

When someone from the center called with negative test results, the student said she told him that he could avoid having to test for STDs again if he changed his lifestyle and suggested that Aspire's counselors could help. The student said he took the comment to mean they could help him change his sexual orientation.

The student labeled the experience "pretty poor."

Deb Couture, the executive director of Aspire Now, said she was saddened to hear of the man's negative impression. Couture said clients are free to decline to answer questions that make them uncomfortable, noting that topics such as the number of sexual partners, condom use and risk factors "are very delicate, as they weigh heavily on one's emotional well-being."

Aspire Now staffers discuss abstinence, she said, because according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "the surest way to avoid STDs is not to have sex."

Legislation and Activism

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned last month, pro-abortion-rights legislators have weighed actions to bolster reproductive freedom. In late June, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that aims to crack down on the use of misleading advertising by crisis pregnancy centers. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is a cosponsor of the bill.

On the state level, retiring state Rep. George Till (D-Jericho), an ob-gyn, introduced a similar bill during the most recent legislative session. It didn't make it out of committee. Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (P/D-Burlington), who is running unopposed for another term in the legislature, said she hopes to promote a similar bill next session.

Meanwhile, the centers have also become targets of grassroots activists.

Middlebury College student Elissa Asch learned about crisis pregnancy centers in a college class several years ago, then was dismayed to discover that a local crisis pregnancy center had participated in on-campus student activity fairs. This summer, she started a petition drive that calls on administrators around New England to enact policies to bar from their campuses any organizations that distribute false medical information. Asch has gathered roughly 550 signatures from students and faculty at the 11 schools that belong to the New England Small College Athletic Conference and plans to present the information she collects to administrators during the upcoming school year.

A spokesperson for Middlebury College confirmed that the Women's Center, previously called the Pregnancy Resource Center of Addison County, has attended student activities fairs to offer volunteer opportunities off and on since 2007.

Brown, the Montpelier resident who visited Care Net, helped organize an informational picket with the Central Vermont Democratic Socialists of America in front of the Barre center on Saturday to draw attention to its practices. Around 14 people — including Washington County state Senate candidate Jeremy Hansen and Vermont librarian and activist Jessamyn West — showed up holding signs reading "This 'clinic' is fake" and "Abortion is health care."

"Most people have no idea there's a [crisis pregnancy center] here," picket organizers wrote in a Tweet the day of the event.

Yet crisis pregnancy centers have elevated their efforts and appear ready to extend their reach in Vermont.

Helped by a grant from a national anti-abortion organization known as Save the Storks, Aspire Now will acquire a mobile van in coming weeks that will allow it to serve more clients in Chittenden and Franklin counties, said Couture, its director.

During a speech in May at the Church of the Crucified One in Moretown, Tabor, the Care Net director, said she hoped to see 100 clients this year — more than double last year's 41. She urged parishioners to spread the word.

"What's important to us is your referrals. Every one of us knows someone that's in an unexpected pregnancy," Tabor told them. "All you need to say is, 'Have you ever heard of Care Net? They help women think through what to do next in a loving way. You should give them a call.'"

The original print version of this article was headlined "'Considering Abortion?'"