New York Is Suing Anti-Abortion ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’ Over ‘Abortion Pill Reversal’ Disinfo

New York Attorney General Letitia James is suing Heartbeat International and 11 other CPCs in the state for deceiving abortion seekers and pushing unsafe, untested “abortion pill reversal” junk science.

Abortion
New York Is Suing Anti-Abortion ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’ Over ‘Abortion Pill Reversal’ Disinfo

Moji Alawode-El was in her early 20s and knew she wanted to have an abortion after she found out she was unexpectedly pregnant in 2003. “I was poor, I was pregnant, I didn’t want to be,” she told Jezebel recently. But when Alawode-El, who now works with Abortion Access Front, went looking to get a pregnancy test from a medical facility to confirm her pregnancy, she wound up at an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center.

A CPC in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan drew her in with the promise of a free pregnancy test—but CPCs exist solely to try to convince people seeking abortions to remain pregnant and lure abortion seekers onto their premises by pretending to offer full-service reproductive care.

The first alarm for Alawode-El came when the CPC worker who attended to her said, “You’re going to be a mom” when her pregnancy test—which was from a drugstore—came back positive. “I was like, ‘No, I’m not.’ It was very uncomfortable.”

Alawode-El asked for abortion pills to end her pregnancy. The CPC didn’t provide abortions, but of course they didn’t tell her that. “They said, ‘We’re out of stock right now, but call us next week.’” She did, and was told they were still out-of-stock and to call again next week. A week passed; she called again. They were still “out of stock.” Three weeks passed—three weeks Alawode-El was forced to remain pregnant when she didn’t want to be, three weeks waiting for something that wasn’t coming. “There was no Google back then,” she told Jezebel. “There was no way for me to get information on what was really going on, where I could really get help.”

That’s the goal of crisis pregnancy centers: To prevent or delay abortion by any means, including with bald-faced lies. For decades, CPCs have told abortion seekers that abortion causes cancer and infertility, and that having an abortion will make someone suicidal. Recently, more and more CPCs—many of which are trained, funded, and otherwise supported by the massive anti-abortion conglomerate Heartbeat International—have been lying to abortion seekers that medication abortion with pills can be reversed through an unsafe, untested method that’s been found to cause dangerous complications.

Last week, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) filed a lawsuit against Heartbeat International and 11 CPCs across the state for “using false and misleading statements” to “aggressively” advertise so-called abortion pill reversal, endangering consumers who come to them seeking care. According to Mother Jones, Heartbeat operates some but not all of the CPCs that are being sued, but all of the CPCs “advertise or promote Heartbeat” and abortion pill reversal. 

In a statement shared with Jezebel, James’ office said Heartbeat International and the other defendants in the suit “are spreading dangerous misinformation by advertising ‘abortion reversals’ without any medical and scientific proof,” and accused the groups of “[pushing] a scientifically unproven and potentially life-threatening intervention” on consumers. “Abortions cannot be reversed. Any treatments that claim to do so are made without scientific evidence and could be unsafe,” James said. “Amid the increase in attacks on reproductive health care nationwide, we must protect pregnant people’s right to make safe, well-informed decisions about their health.”

According to Heartbeat International and other anti-abortion activists, a medication abortion that’s underway can be “reversed” if, after taking the mifepristone pills that induce a miscarriage, the person then ingests large amounts of progesterone and doesn’t take the misoprostol pills that expel the pregnancy. There is no medical evidence that this works, and a 2019 study that was testing “abortion pill reversal” was halted almost immediately when participants experienced severe hemorrhaging.

Misinformation about “abortion pill reversal” is a relatively new tool in the anti-abortion movement’s arsenal, Shireen Shakouri, executive vice president of Reproaction, told Jezebel. Reproaction tracks crisis pregnancy center’ tactics to prey on and deceive abortion seekers. CPCs, following the lead of Heartbeat International, really started to roll out “abortion reversal” talking points in the late 2010s, Shakouri said. It might seem counterintuitive that a CPC that’s trying to stop someone from having an abortion would tell an abortion seeker about “abortion reversal,” but according to Shakouri, there’s a reason for this.

“It’s part of an overarching effort to discredit the medical community, discredit reproductive rights actors and medically established information about pregnancy and abortion,” she explained. “Abortion pill reversal” misinformation also amounts to another “delay tactic,” Shakouri said. The goal of CPCs is to “stop people from finalizing a decision about abortion that, in most cases, they’ve already made for themselves, and if they’re confused, they might delay further.”

“We’ve seen them lie to someone about their gestational age to delay them by saying they have more time to think, we’ll see them lie about so many things,” she continued. “Now, ‘abortion pill reversal’ is one of those things, because it’s just more confusion, more mind games, manipulating someone’s decision-making, pushing anti-abortion stigma.”

In December 2022, Olivia Raisner, co-founder of Mayday Health, published an unsettling video depicting what she found when she went undercover at five different state-funded CPCs in Indiana. One worker told Raisner that if she had a medication abortion, she could “reverse” it with “abortion pill reversal.” 

At CPCs, Raisner said, “They offer free ultrasounds, financial assistance, all the resources necessary, and make it very tempting to lean on them. Unfortunately, we know they’re fake medical clinics whose only agenda is to spread lies, to shame people away from abortion.” At all of the CPCs Raisner visited, she told Jezebel that it was as if all employees were reading from the same pre-written “script,” with varying anecdotes subbed in. “When I told them I was thinking about abortion, they all led with ‘suicide’ and the risk of that.” 

 

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As James’ lawsuit against Heartbeat International and New York-based CPCs shows, even in a blue, pro-choice state like New York, barriers to abortion remain, including in the form of CPCs that prey on abortion seekers and weaponize disinformation to potentially stop them from getting the care they seek. The Democratic state attorneys general in California, New Jersey, and Arizona have also taken legal action against CPCs in recent years; California Attorney General Rob Bonta also sued Heartbeat International last year. However, James’ lawsuit is novel in that it specifically names and cracks down on “abortion pill reversal” lies.

In addition to misinformation that can actually jeopardize pregnant people’s health, CPCs can put abortion seekers in other forms of danger. As we’ve previously reported at Jezebel, crisis pregnancy centers have become a major surveillance apparatus for anti-abortion activists and even state governments that contract with CPCs; this is particularly concerning as abortion and pregnancy loss are increasingly resulting in criminal charges

Victims of CPCs have previously told the Expose Fake Clinics campaign about experiences being stalked and harassed by CPCs after leaving, including one case when someone recounted that a CPC “began calling her almost daily and telling her that she would die, or end up in hell, or get very sick if she were to go through with the abortion.” Some told the campaign they were forced to sign contracts pledging to not have an abortion before leaving the clinic. 

Alawode-El, who was delayed from accessing abortion by the Manhattan-based CPC, eventually had an abortion by going to a hospital. “It’s unfortunate, because I could have just gone to an abortion clinic, it might have been more convenient,” she told Jezebel, “but because of my experience with the CPC and thinking that was what all clinics were, I didn’t trust them anymore.”

Alawode-El said she was “lucky” because she’d been early enough in her pregnancy that the three week delay didn’t pose a significant setback. But for other people who could be deceived by a CPC and prevented from getting abortion care for weeks, it could mean having a more expensive, more complicated procedure, being forced to travel to a different state that offers abortion later in pregnancy, or, worse, being unable to have an abortion altogether.

“All of this shows the power of bad communication and misinformation with health care,” Alawode-El said. “Abortion pill reversal” lies are a part of this, complicating access to medical information amid a particularly stressful time for someone, and making them unable to know who to trust. “Navigating all health care is such a nightmare, but this is so unique to abortion: [It] can be hard to make a root canal appointment—but at least you’re not going to have to deal with a bunch of fake dentists.”

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