How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Reproduce Sexual Violence, According to a CPC Victim

“They definitely prey on vulnerable people specifically,” Maleeha Aziz told Jezebel. “Had I known that was a fake clinic all those years ago, would I let them touch me? Absolutely not."

AbortionIn Depth
How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Reproduce Sexual Violence, According to a CPC Victim

In 2013, Maleeha Aziz was 20 years old when she immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan and soon found herself with an unplanned pregnancy. She sought help from a loved one who was in medical school to find an abortion clinic, but they inadvertently directed her to an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center. Aziz recounts her story in the new documentary, Preconceived, which premiered at South by Southwest this week. In the film, Aziz details the lies and predatory behaviors that a Texas-based CPC wielded to try and convince her not to get the abortion she knew she wanted. 

Aziz recalls a particularly chilling moment when a CPC worker told her she needed an ultrasound. Like most CPC workers, this person wasn’t a medically licensed health care worker. (Of course, Aziz didn’t know that at the time.) When Aziz explained she was uncomfortable with this due to past trauma as a sexual assault survivor, she says the CPC worker told her that, as a pregnant woman,  she “[needed] to learn to deal with pain.”

Aziz did eventually get her abortion—the first of two, before choosing to have her daughter five years ago—but only after the CPC lied that it was too late for her to get one in Texas (it wasn’t), forcing her to “spend money I didn’t have” and travel to Colorado for the procedure while suffering from severe morning sickness.

Speaking to Jezebel this week, Aziz says she sees her identities—as a survivor, an immigrant, and, at the time, a financially insecure young woman—as key factors in why and how a CPC targeted her. “They definitely prey on vulnerable people specifically,” Aziz explained. “Had I known that was a fake clinic all those years ago, would I let them touch me? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t have even gone in there. I was deceived and violated.” Aziz says she felt she had to allow the CPC workers to perform the invasive ultrasound on her because she thought they were medical professionals. “But they weren’t, so it’s not OK that they did that. That’s violent in and of itself—that they touched me under false pretenses, did all of these things to further traumatize me—that’s absolutely violence.”

Today, as the deputy director of the Texas Equal Access (TEA) abortion fund, Aziz sees her advocacy for reproductive justice and identity as a survivor as “interconnected.” She didn’t become pregnant and seek abortion due to sexual assault but she told Jezebel she sought to end her pregnancy to leave an emotionally abusive relationship. “As a survivor, as someone who’s had abortions, those identities live on with you,” she said. Both of these experiences have shaped her urgent activism for bodily autonomy—and her understanding of CPCs and anti-abortion state governments as conjoined perpetrators of gender-based violence. Several states have introduced or passed bills—like Kentucky’s required transvaginal ultrasound law—which requires abortion seekers to receive ultrasounds before they can have the procedure.

Photo by: Julie Hotz
Courtesy of: All Roads Productions LLC

Preconceived shines light on a range of deceptive and manipulative strategies deployed by CPCs, such as: lying about how far along someone’s pregnancy is; distracting and delaying them until it’s too late to get an abortion; setting up next to real abortion clinics; playing fake heartbeat sounds for visitors; pushing the unhinged, unproven concept of abortion pill reversal; and lying that they’ll help you after the pregnancy. But there’s something particularly grim about posing as a health care worker to exploit the fear and desperation of someone with an unplanned pregnancy. According to Guttmacher Institute, most of the people who visit CPCs are young and low-income, often lured by the misleading offer of free ultrasounds and other free resources.

While Aziz was at the CPC, she also told Jezebel that she once felt physically trapped at the facility. CPC workers had her sit in a room “through 30 minutes of torture watching this [anti-abortion] propaganda video,” keeping the door closed and making Aziz feel she “could not leave.” Additionally, CPC workers used every minute she spent at the facility to collect private information about her. Believing she was at a health care facility, Aziz provided everything they asked for. “To this day, I don’t know what they used it for, if they still have it,” she said. For months, even after she had her abortion, the center continued to “call and harass” Aziz until she blocked their number. “The whole time I was there, they kept talking to me, trying to make me feel like they’re my friends so I would tell more about myself—actual health care workers have never asked me the things they asked, like about my family, my life.”

Featuring interviews with researchers who have tracked crisis pregnancy centers’ methods for years, Preconceived uncovers how most individual CPCs are cogs in an enormous anti-abortion machine, with deep connections to the most powerful, well-funded anti-abortion organizations in the world. They often use the same back-end digital management system provided by Heartbeat International to store and potentially share people’s data, which is all the more ominous in a post-Roe climate where pregnancy and abortion are shrouded in criminal suspicion. As Jezebel previously reported, Heartbeat International’s Option Line chat program used by many CPCs says in its terms of use that “all remarks” sent through Option Line can be used “for any and all purposes…appropriate to the mission and vision of Option Line.’” One state lawmaker interviewed in Preconceived characterizes CPCs as “the surveillance center of the anti-abortion movement.”

Photo by: Chris Mariles
Courtesy of: All Roads Productions LLC

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, the “[crisis pregnancy centers’] agenda hasn’t changed,” Aziz says. “They will continue to prey on vulnerable people and provide them with misinformation.” They’re receiving more state funding than ever, Aziz continued, money that could help the actual pregnant people whom CPCs prey on. And there’s still no clarity about how they’re using abortion seekers’ data.

At the end of Preconceived, we watch Aziz take the bold step of returning to the CPC that deceived and violated her. When she recounts her experience at the center, we hear audio of a CPC worker condescendingly telling her that it sounds like Aziz just regrets her abortion and they can’t help her “process” that. “I was very nervous going back there because any time I pass a CPC, whether it’s that one or another one, I feel angry, triggered, get flashbacks. My heart was racing,” Aziz told Jezebel. Ultimately, Aziz says she’s “glad” she returned to confront the CPC about what it did to her, years later, after her abortions allowed her life to flourish. “I got the closure that I didn’t get all those years ago. I was able to say my peace, and it felt great.”

Today, Aziz’s position at TEA Fund lets her help people who are in the position she once found herself in to access reproductive care through the “heart-wrenching circumstances” under the state’s total abortion ban. Aziz has a young daughter and says in Preconceived that the family she has today was made possible by her two abortions. “I was able to graduate, change my financial situation, feel more stable,” she said. “Five years after my first abortion, I planned my pregnancy, I’ve been able to give my daughter the life I wanted to give her—because of my abortions.”

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin