NATIONAL – A new study of unlicensed pregnancy counselling centres across Canada finds that they often conceal an anti-abortion agenda and provide medical misinformation to pregnant clients.
Co-developed by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) and the BC Humanist Association (BCHA), the study reviewed websites of the nearly 150 so-called crisis pregnancy centres (CPCs) across Canada to identify the presence of misleading information, and compared the results to a similar 2016 study conducted by ARCC to better understand changes over time.
“We found that the websites of most CPCs in Canada share biased, misleading or outright false information,” said Joyce Arthur, Executive Director of ARCC. “Even though these agencies present themselves as unbiased counselling centres, most are anti-abortion and religiously affiliated. A key goal for them is to dissuade clients from having an abortion. Our report highlights the urgent need for increased regulation and oversight of CPCs to ensure that pregnant people are not subject to harmful misinformation or coercion.”
The study notes that since 2016, ten percent of CPCs in Canada have begun offering ultrasound or other services such as STI testing. However, CPCs are unregulated, and so are not obligated to adhere to medical standards. “Abortion is the only medical service in Canada that has a system of fake medical clinics intended to divert people from the care they need via disinformation, ideological persuasion, and unlicensed medical services,” said Arthur. “What’s worse, these agencies are attracting clients who tend to be more disadvantaged or vulnerable, including not just cis-women, but also youth, immigrants, and gender-diverse people.”
“The biased nature of crisis pregnancy centres and the motivated counseling that they offer can cause a variety of harms to pregnant people,” said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, Research Coordinator for the BCHA. “A visit to a CPC may delay access to essential healthcare services such as prenatal care, not just abortion care. Some CPCs withhold or misrepresent information about abortion or engage in scare tactics, such as falsely claiming that abortion causes breast cancer or severe negative psychological effects. This amounts to emotional manipulation of clients, many of whom are in vulnerable situations.”
“We noticed some revealing changes in the data compared to ARCC’s original 2016 study of CPC websites,” said Olivia Jensen, Acting Executive Director of BCHA. “CPCs are becoming increasingly vague on their websites, as well as providing less information and being more careful with their messaging. This makes it more difficult to determine if they have religious or anti-choice sentiments.”
“We think CPCs are trying to make themselves look more legitimate to the public and to funders – which can include the government – by hiding their anti-choice stance,” said Joyce Arthur. “Since 93% of CPCs are registered charities, they are likely afraid of losing their charitable status due to the Liberal Party promise in 2021 to no longer allow anti-choice groups to be charities.”
Despite the move towards more vague and careful messaging, most CPC websites still contained misinformation, often an increased amount, particularly on the alleged risks of abortion. About 75% of websites claimed an increased risk of negative psychological effects after an abortion, but in 2016, only 48% of sites had such claims. Further, 19% of websites mentioned physical complications of abortion in 2022, compared to only 9% in 2016.
“We’re alarmed that some CPCs receive funding from government sources, despite their misleading practices and lack of medical expertise,” said Jensen. “It is crucial that Canadian policymakers take action to regulate these centres and ensure that people have access to accurate information and unbiased support when making decisions about their reproductive health. Women and gender-diverse people with unplanned pregnancies deserve accurate information and compassionate support, not deceptive tactics and propaganda from ideologically-driven organizations.”
“We recommend that CPCs be required to disclose their anti-choice and religious stance and be stopped from providing unregulated medical services such as ultrasounds,” said Phelps Bondaroff. “Crisis pregnancy centres should not be receiving public funding, and in addition to having their charitable tax status revoked they should be prevented from teaching sex education in public schools.”
“People have the right to access accurate information and make informed decisions about their reproductive health. Crisis pregnancy centres in Canada are hindering this right and must be held accountable for their deceptive practices,” said Jensen.