Prolife centers that offer alternatives to abortion came under scrutiny last month at a congressional hearing that prolife groups labeled a “kangaroo court.” No prolife representatives were called upon to testify at the hearing on “Consumer Protection and Patient Safety Issues Involving Bogus Abortion Clinics,” which focused on what critics describe as deceptive advertising practices of crisis-pregnancy centers.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Regulation, Business Opportunities, and Energy, identified a bogus clinic as a facility “which typically is not staffed by professional health-care providers where abortion and abortion referral services are neither given nor contemplated by the operator.” The facilities, he said, often direct abusive arguments and high-pressure tactics at unsuspecting and vulnerable customers. Wyden said his staff surveyed more than 200 yellow-page directories nationwide and estimated that 2,000 bogus clinics exist.

One example cited during the hearing was a training manual published by the St. Louis-based Pearson Foundation entitled “How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center.” The manual advises that centers should “look like an abortion clinic” and should be “listed in the yellow pages of telephone directories with abortion clinics.” Wyden stated that Pearson’s methods have been adopted and refined by other groups, including the Christian Action Council (CAC), a claim that CAC leaders vigorously denied.

No Prolife Voices

Prior to the hearing, prolife leaders held a press conference to denounce its one-sided testimony. “That a congressional hearing would be assembled, where the integrity of entire chains of organizations was on the line, and they were not allowed to be there to go on public record defending themselves is absurd,” said Marjorie Danenfelsner, staff director for the Prolife Caucus.

Steve Jennings, staff director of the congressional subcommittee, said that researchers encountered “difficulty” in finding representatives from the prolife side because the workers at the clinics contacted refused to identify themselves or the owners. “We were at a loss to identify those having problems, which were certainly not everyone in the antiabortion counseling sector,” Jennings said.

Prolife leaders, however, were not satisfied with the explanation. Harriet Lewis, vice-president for Crisis Pregnancy Center Ministries of the CAC, said after the hearing that the CAC had written to Wyden’s subcommittee, stating their position and asking to participate in the hearing. “We were willing to make statements about all of our 425 centers because we are the ones that set the policies and standards, and provide the materials to which those centers must adhere,” Lewis said.

According to Jennings, the CAC was denied a place on the panel because their organization does not own or manage clinics and “would not take responsibility for decisions made by the managers of those clinics.”

In fact, even abortion advocates faulted subcommittee organizers for the lack of a prolife voice at the hearing. In a press release, People for the American Way said “the other side” should not have been slighted. Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of National Coalition of Abortion Providers (NCAP), who testified at the hearing, later told CHRISTIANITY TODAY, “I think it was wrong.… You’ve got to hear both sides.”

Local Targets

Lewis admitted that deceptive tactics are practiced by a minority of prolife clinics, but added that the CAC would urge clinics to “stop deceit in all forms and end all deceptive practices, period.” However, Lewis said, “These hearings assumed that the deceptive practices of some are found in the ministries of all, and in fact that is not true.”

In conjunction with the Washington hearing, NCAP’s Fitzsimmons encouraged local abortion providers to hold press conferences in front of their communities’ “phony abortion clinics.” Prolife leaders also complained that those local conferences were ambushes based on distortions and misinformation.

One clinic targeted was the Crisis Pregnancy Center of Greater Toledo, Ohio. Manager Bonnie Kouffmann said she did not learn her center had been criticized until three hours after Carol Dunn, owner of Center for Choice in Toledo, had staged a press conference. “According to the local media, [Dunn] stated the Crisis Pregnancy Center of Greater Toledo is one of numerous centers across the nation that use false advertising, lies, deceit, and scare tactics with clients, and delay pregnancy-test results,” Kouffmann said.

The only evidence Dunn reportedly offered to support her claims was an ad for the Crisis Pregnancy Center in the University of Toledo phone directory, with a listing under abortion services. Kouffmann said she had requested the ad be placed under “abortion alternatives,” but the directory publisher denied the request, stating it had no such category, Kouffmann said. She denied all the other accusations.

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Prolifers believe opposition to crisis-pregnancy centers is increasing. “[Abortion advocates] have got a feeling of power in the Congress right now.… This hearing is a perfect example,” said Danenfelsner.

“It is obviously in [abortion advocates’] best interest to deflect attention from themselves,” says Marvin Olasky, professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. In his book The Press and Abortion, Olasky details the history and planning of the prochoice movement’s strategy to discredit abortion-alternative providers. He sees the recent wave of criticism as a reaction against the antiabortion efforts of Operation Rescue, which drew national attention last summer with its campaign in Wichita, Kansas.

By Heidi Campbell in Washington, D.C.

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