A religious anti-abortion pregnancy center is attempting to distinguish itself from similar groups, even though it uses almost identical language to describe the services it offers to women and the same omissions to hide what it won’t provide: abortions and some forms of birth control.
The dispute, which has emerged amid a national debate around the proliferation of anti-abortion pregnancy centers, is causing a potential split among backers of anti-abortion pregnancy centers, despite their core similarity of refusing to offer truly comprehensive women’s health care.
Marisol Health, a network of anti-abortion women’s health clinics created by Catholic Charities of Denver, is threatening to take legal action against ProgressNow Colorado, which it says misled the public about the services Marisol provides to women who walk through its doors.
A cease and desist letter sent to the group claims a video the organization released more than a year ago regarding so-called Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) is defamatory and libelous. The video features a woman sharing concerns about a past visit to a CPC, and explains how the centers sometimes mislead or lie to women who might want abortions. The video also points out that many of these pregnancy centers don’t actually employ licensed medical providers at their facilities.
The ProgressNow video shows images of several CPCs, including Marisol Health, but makes no specific claims about any of those centers. Still, Marisol Health demanded that ProgressNow remove their clinic’s image or take down the video, and is threatening further legal action if those demands aren’t met.
There’s recently been an increased awareness around CPCs, thanks in part to a segment on John Oliver’s late-night news show Last Week Tonight that focused on anti-abortion pregnancy centers and their tendency to provide women with misinformation. And, in March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case regarding a California law aimed at regulating the centers.
They now vastly outnumber abortion providers, and tend to offer free or low-cost pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and counseling. Many, including Marisol, offer an “abortion pill reversal” process for women who change their minds about wanting to terminate their pregnancies after taking the first dose of the abortion pill, a process which hasn’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and isn’t recommended by American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
But the services offered at these anti-abortion pregnancy centers do vary. And for Marisol, that seems to be the problem.
Unlike many CPCs, Marisol Health does have licensed medical staff, who provide patients with everything from STI screenings to prenatal care through a partnership with Bella Natural Women’s Care, a Christian women’s health clinic. Marisol also offers help finding housing and employment, provides families with diapers, and assists with other basic needs.
In fact, Marisol doesn’t define itself as a CPC at all, according to Marisol Vice President Jan McIntosh and Bella’s Dede Chism, whom I spoke with after a press conference last Wednesday.
“We’re not a Crisis Pregnancy Center,” said Chism. “So that’s probably one of the problems in the whole situation, is that we’re a full-service medical practice.”
Still, they don’t provide abortions, or even refer patients to abortion providers. And in a Jan. 2017 KNUS radio interview with Dan Caplis, Catholic Charities of Denver President and CEO Larry Smith put Marisol Health’s anti-abortion stance in no uncertain terms: “If we’re going to stop abortion, we’ve got to stop the need for abortion,” he said, going on to highlight their aim of alleviating concerns women have regarding parenting, like financial obstacles.
Keeping in line with their conservative Catholic roots, however, Marisol doesn’t offer contraceptives, but instead trains women in the “fertility awareness” method to prevent pregnancy. Other forms of birth control, like pills or long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), such as IUDs, are much more effective. This fact has been demonstrated by a Colorado program that provided LARCs to low-income women, which cut the state’s teen abortion and pregnancy rates in half.
But despite their exclusion of abortion and most birth control services, which are widely considered to be tenets of reproductive care, McIntosh described the services they offer as the “full breadth of women’s health care.” CPCs commonly use such language to describe themselves.
For Marisol’s leaders, it’s the fact that they do actually offer medical care that apparently leads them to believe they deserve to be placed in a different category than the anti-abortion pregnancy centers that have recently caught national attention.
But with their clearly stated mission of preventing abortions, and exclusion of certain services based on their religious beliefs, it’s hard to see how they can be defined in any other way.
It’s not clear how many of the dozens of CPCs in Colorado – and the thousands nationwide – have licensed medical staff at their facilities. But regardless of differences in the services they provide, they’re united in their anti-abortion agendas.
Despite their effort to distance themselves from similar pregnancy centers, Chism said they’re not trying to put others down.
“To be very honest, I have no idea what the other clinics do,” said Chism. “We certainly don’t want to dog anybody.”
That sentiment was echoed by Marisol’s lawyer Mike Norton, who’s also represented the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers hate group based on its extreme anti-LGBTQ views.
“We know what we do and we’re speaking for us, and we really don’t know for sure what the others in the [ProgressNow] video do,” said Norton.
Before their partnership with Bella, which was formed around two years ago, Marisol operated without any doctors, but under a different name. Marisol’s clinic in Stapleton, which sits across from a Planned Parenthood clinic, used to operate as Lighthouse Women’s Center, and their Lafayette location was formerly Real Choices Pregnancy Resource Center.
“We felt the need to add the full medical care so we could remain engaged with the women and provide full services,” McIntosh said of the revamp.
Norton said they never received a response from ProgressNow regarding their demand.