NATIONAL HARBOR, MD—Behind Ken Bone’s “Bone Zone” and rows of booths handing out “Socialism Sucks” posters at a swag-filled hall within the Conservative Political Action Conference sits a shiny blue Mercedes van that reads “Free Ultrasound Pregnancy & STI Testing.” The oversized van, which costs around $150,000 and features inviting tan leather seats and carpet, is part of a fleet of 33 mobile crisis pregnancy centers that roam the country to deter pregnant women from seeking abortions and then nudge them towards evangelism.
The woman inside the van, Julie Rosati, is with anti-abortion group Save the Storks and says she wants “to meet with every woman considering an abortion and show them other options.” By “other options” she means, of course, not abortion.
“Don’t you think that, if a woman is seeking an abortion, she has already considered other options?” I ask. “Yes,” Rosati replies, but then adds that women may not know the risks associated with abortion.
She’s right. Women seeking an abortion in America today are struggling. Thanks to anti-abortion laws and stigma, women may endure verbal and even physical harassment by protesters outside of abortion clinics, face high costs and added burdens associated with traveling very long distances because there’s no abortion clinic in their state, endure lasting emotional trauma if they are forced to have ultrasounds or carry a baby produced by incest or rape, and may even risk death to desperately obtain a back-alley abortion.
These are not the “risks” that Rosati is talking about, however. “Abortion is dangerous,” she continues. “I believe it can cause negative physical effects.” She rattles off a number of organs, like the uterus, that will face a slew of unnamed “issues” and says, incorrectly, that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. She then lists an alarming number of fake “emotional effects:” depression, regret, being triggered around the date of the abortion (something she called the “anniversary effect”), and that some women will be unable to go to baby showers for the rest of their lives. These are the things she tells to the usually low-income, desperate, and vulnerable women who approach her Mercedes seeking guidance.
Here’s what happens to a pregnant woman who walks into the van: She will be told the dangers of abortion, may receive an ultrasound, and will be given the option to take weekly classes on pregnancy and child-rearing or resources on adoption. If she completes weekly homework, she’ll get fake paper currency that she can trade in for supplies like diapers. Though the organization doesn’t want women to have abortions, it refuses to offer women contraceptives or birth control, which lower the number of unintended pregnancies and therefore lower the rate of abortions.
Rosati also offers carries literature about evangelical Christianity and offers women the chance to pray together. “Ninety-nine percent of people accept prayer,” she says.
With the rise in anti-abortion legislation across the country, the number of crisis pregnancy centers is growing. In 2015, Cosmopolitan.com reported that crisis pregnancy centers “now outnumber abortion clinics 3 to 1,” and, like the Save the Storks van, often push an evangelical agenda. According to NARAL, there are about 3,500 crisis pregnancy centers in every state in America and in other countries. Save the Storks, which is supported by donations, is expanding to offer pregnancy kit dispensers in bathrooms, consulting services, and a coffee shop called Stork Coffee that “will host pro-life events and offer financial support to local pregnancy centers,” according to a pamphlet.
Rosati’s hope is to catch women who might otherwise stumble into a Planned Parenthood clinic. She says “Planned Parenthood” in an ominous tone, as though the organization is the last stronghold of the Manson Family cult. “To change their mind based on their experience [in the van],” she says, “is a miracle.”