If you want a Western country serving as a cautionary tale for what the recent state laws attempting to ban abortion are trying to do in the U.S., Germany is a good example.
Abortion is technically illegal under German federal law, unless it’s in the first trimester and the pregnant person agrees to be subjected to mandatory counseling and a waiting period of three days between that session and the medical procedure. (Some states in the U.S. have similar targeted restrictions on abortion services, known as TRAP laws, which almost always place an undue burden on people attempting to navigate an already broken healthcare system; Mississippi has a one-day waiting period, while people in Missouri must wait 72 hours.) Some German laws also hail back to Nazi rule, like the one restricting doctors from advertising abortions in detail, sanctioned under Adolf Hitler; they are allowed to list whether they perform the procedure, but not provide any further details to would-be patients.
I was 18 years old and on summer vacation in Germany when I got an abortion. Yet even though I spoke three words of the local language in a country with strict abortion restrictions, I felt infinitely more empowered and respected than I did inside a crisis pregnancy center in Kentucky earlier this month.
On the surface, a CPC purports to provide genuine care to pregnant people considering their options; the bulk of their advertising dollars are spent targeting women they consider to be “abortion-vulnerable,” sometimes with ads so egregious that Google has decided to remove them. In reality, these CPCs are anti-choice facilities that don't offer abortions or even refer patients to facilities that do provide abortion services; instead, they offer free or low-cost pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. (Critics say they do this in order to lure unsuspecting patients in order to convince, guilt, or even trick them out of obtaining an abortion.) They’re not legitimate doctors’ offices and have not been regulated as such. So when I heard they were increasingly targeting college students, I reached out; none of the five facilities I asked accepted my formal interview request, so I decided to check out what they were doing for myself.
To be clear, when I went into the CPC, I entered the facility with the intention to learn what these centers tell clients. The center I went to in Louisville, Kentucky — a blue dot in a largely red state — is one of a few CPCs clustered around the University of Louisville, almost strategically so. Kentucky is also one of six states in America with one remaining abortion clinic, located in the same town; state legislators recently attempted to enact a highly-restrictive ban prohibiting abortions after six weeks, which is before most people know they’re pregnant, and significantly earlier than the timeframe protected by Roe V. Wade.
Nothing about the CPC’s website said they were run by religious volunteers; it was only when I saw a Bible verse on the wall that their affiliation as a faith-based group was clear. The issue here was not the fact they were religious, but the long history of people weaponizing religion as the basis for subjecting an anti-choice stance onto other people. (Catholic hospitals have similarly come under fire for restricting actual doctors from performing the procedure, even at unaffiliated clinics.)
“Everything we do here is medical,” a volunteer told me in the evaluation room, despite the fact she wasn’t a licensed medical professional.
She proceeded to ask for the last four digits of my Social Security number, which to me was bizarre; only a few organizations have a legal right to use your SSN — your employer, banks and lenders, investment funds, the IRS, and government-funded programs such as workers’ compensation. There’s no legitimate reason for any entity with which you’re not financially involved to ask for your Social. “It’s just one of the things we do here,” she said. I pushed back. It’s “what you do anytime you do anything online,” she responded, which is blatantly false.
Her tone became hostile and she continued to prod me into giving her my information. I’m still unclear as to why this particular CPC pushes so aggressively for the last four digits of pregnant people’s Socials, but I could see how more vulnerable women would easily hand over their information. It was alarmingly predatory, and it was only after minutes of back and forth that we began talking about pregnancy.
I told her I had an IUD. She said that there’s always that “one percent, two percent” chance an IUD could fail, which are around the same rate as a condom. In reality, according to OB/GYNs, IUDs have a less than one percent chance of failure — around 0.2-0.8%. The error wasn’t surprising: Contraceptives are notoriously contentious among the religious right, who falsely claim that birth control could cause abortions, often without any medical proof to support that narrative.
When it finally came time to take a pregnancy test, the volunteer said it would be with a pee stick — the same kind you get at the drugstore. She claimed theirs were more accurate because they were not expired, but there is no evidence to support the likelihood of someone buying an expired test from the store. Planned Parenthood also advocates for drugstore pregnancy tests given that medical pregnancy tests often test urine in the exact same way. Some people cannot afford the roughly $12 for a pack of pregnancy tests, or otherwise fear for their own safety if their pregnancy is discovered; to that end, it can be life-saving to have access to free or low-cost tests. The problem, then, is what happens at these testing appointments.
When my test came back negative, I thought the appointment was over. As I got ready to leave, she asked, “Have you thought about STDs?” and handed me a chart equating my sexual activity to promiscuity. Based on this chart if I’d slept with 12 people, and each of those 12 people slept with 12 people, then I could have actually slept with 4,095 people and been exposed to all their STDs.
Beyond the fact that this chart was not based on a structured mathematical logic nor a peer-reviewed study, I was bewildered — it had nothing to do with pregnancy. Linking sexual activity and pregnancy is based on the shaming of women for having sex — and the false assumption that every woman who might be pregnant not only failed to use protection but has also been exposed to every STD in the book.
“You need to be beautiful on the inside and you need to respect yourself,” the volunteer finished.
The experience left me angry at the center for slut-shaming women seeking genuine medical care. I had more questions than answers, namely: How do these centers get away with giving false information? Who regulates them?
I called the city’s health department and they directed me to the Kentucky State Department of Health; there, I got an answering service, and left a message for their spokesperson. No one got back to me. But as irritating as their silence is, the lack of accountability for CPCs comes from higher up in the form of a Supreme Court decision last summer that effectively gave CPCs the okay to lie to their patients.
In a 5-4 decision in the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, the Supreme Court reversed a California law that required anti-choice CPCs in the state to clearly state their mission. Because of that, CPCs in California now do not have to state their non-medical affiliations or disclose that they’re anti-abortion facilities; it is assumed that the decision will be upheld in other states.
When I went to the abortion clinic in Germany, it never once crossed my mind that the clinic was fake or that the information given to me was unscientific. I was okay with waiting three days and traveling two hours each time to get to the clinic, because I knew the mandatory counseling session was done by a genuine professional. I was grateful that I had the option to access the care I needed and empowered in knowing that my doctors and nurses were licensed to keep me medically sound.
It’s not to say the waiting period wasn’t difficult, but it was perhaps easier for me than for other people; I was on vacation and therefore did not have to take time off work the way other pregnant people do. I also went in early enough in the pregnancy — if I didn’t know I was pregnant until the end of my first trimester, that waiting period could have pushed me past the legal time limit to have the procedure at all. And I was resolute. I knew I couldn’t raise a kid at 18. But I can see how the wait could wear on others who might not have the emotional support and resources that I did. Or how distressed I would have been if I’d walked into a CPC and experienced the things I did in Kentucky while I was under duress and pregnant.
Even with the fragile Roe v. Wade decision upholding abortion, the lies spread by CPCs already greatly outnumber genuine medical truths in Kentucky. Seventy-six of its 120 counties do not have OB/GYNs — and not all OB/GYNs perform the procedure. Refinery29 estimates there are 69 CPCs to the state’s one abortion clinic. Conservative lawmakers are consistently outspending progressives in anti-abortion messaging campaigns on Facebook, many of which reach young people. (MTV News has reached out to Facebook for comment.)
Medical lies are more widely available in Kentucky than real doctors. When that happens, the people who suffer the most are vulnerable people putting their trust in an entity with ulterior motives, who lie to them about their rights and options, and who guilt them into believing that the only choice is no choice at all.