Shady Sonograms

When I called the crisis pregnancy center to make an appointment, they were immediately pushy about their ultrasound services. They didn’t even know how far along I was in my pregnancy or if I was truly pregnant. When I went in to the CPC for my appointment, I was taken to the ultrasound room after a volunteer counselor and missionary discussed my pregnancy options with me and discouraged me from seeking an abortion. They never gave me a pregnancy test. The missionary performed the ultrasound. At first she told me she could not see anything, but after several minutes she told me she was pretty sure she could see my ‘baby’ even though in reality, I wasn’t pregnant”

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A mobile ultrasound unit that parks outside of the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Houston, Texas.

In the past two sessions, the legislature passed two bills that have made it more difficult for Texans to access abortion care and increased crisis pregnancy centers’ ability to take advantage of people experiencing unintended pregnancy. A law passed in 2011 requires people seeking an abortion to have a sonogram at least 24 hours before their abortion. CPCs benefit from this law in several ways. In addition to the mandatory sonogram portion, which CPCs can’t satisfy but do exploit, the law also stipulates that abortion providers must give their visitors a list of places where they can receive free ultrasounds–all of which are CPCs. Abortion clinics will not accept an ultrasound performed by a CPC because the law requires that the sonogram be performed at the clinic by the same physician performing the abortion procedure.  CPCs have further taken advantage of this law by creating mobile ultrasound centers (usually on a bus or RV) and parking them directly outside of abortion clinics so they can lure pregnant people in and away from the clinic with the promise of a free ultrasound.   At a training held at the Texas Capitol in August 2014, anti-choice community leaders said this tactic was working and admitted that they knew their clients could not take their ultrasound to an abortion clinic.

A new anti-abortion law, passed in the summer of 2013, puts costly and unnecessary restrictions on abortion clinics and has caused the closure of over half of the abortion clinics in Texas (as of September 2014). Because of these rapid and widespread closures, more Texans facing unintended pregnancies are turning to crisis pregnancy centers for help, not knowing that CPCs do not provide accurate information about abortion or support that decision. The CPCs that have strategically placed themselves near abortion clinics further benefit from clinic closures because many people seeking abortion services go to the CPCs mistakenly when they try to find the clinic.

CPCs use ultrasounds as an opportunity to manipulate their visitors into continuing their pregnancies. They believe that if they can get their visitors to see an image of their developing fetus, it will be easier to convince the visitor to continue the pregnancy to term. CPCs’ use of ultrasounds as a tactic to advance their own agenda has resulted in them misinterpreting ultrasound images.   

The volunteer who performed my ultrasound was initially unable to locate the fetus. She said the reason why it was difficult to see anything was probably because I wasn’t as far along in my pregnancy as she had initially thought. Later she told me that she saw what might be the embryonic sac on the ultrasound screen, but that she couldn’t say for sure. But then she proceeded to show me what the fetus ‘actually looked like’ by showing me images of an 8-week old fetus (even though we had established that I wasn’t that far along) in A Woman’s Right to Know.”

Sonogram 1
One of our investigator’s ultrasound photos. The crisis pregnancy center volunteer who performed the ultrasound said she was “pretty sure” that the dark shadow on the uterus was the investigator’s “baby.” The investigator was not pregnant.

Four investigators received ultrasounds during their investigations and half of them were told by the volunteer performing the ultrasound that they were “pretty sure” they saw the “baby,” despite the fact that neither of those investigators were actually pregnant. Even though they were uncertain about what they saw in the uterus, the CPC volunteers never discussed the possibility of an ectopic pregnancy with the investigators (although one of the volunteers did ask our investigator if she had any cramping–a symptom of ectopic pregnancy). A pregnancy is ectopic when it occurs outside of the uterus, usually in the fallopian tubes. An ectopic pregnancy is not typically viable, and if left untreated it can be fatal to the pregnant person. If a person tests positive for pregnancy but does not have a fetus in the uterus, this person should seek immediate medical care. By not encouraging visitors to seek medical care, the CPCs are putting them in serious danger.

Sonogram 2
Another one of our investigator’s ultrasound photos taken at a crisis pregnancy center (CPC). The investigator was not actually pregnant.

Based on our investigations, one might conclude that CPCs cannot be trusted to give accurate interpretations of ultrasound images.  CPCs often have broken or poorly operating ultrasound machines and openly admit that their machines are of lower quality than those used by doctors. In addition to this, the volunteers who perform the ultrasounds are not trained to identify pregnancy complications, which puts their visitors at risk of having an untreated complication. Even if the volunteer performing the ultrasound has had medical training and uses high quality equipment, this person still cannot be trusted to provide accurate information about the ultrasound because of the organizational bias. CPCs use ultrasounds for the sole purpose of showing visitors an image of their fetus, so they are determined to identify a fetus even when there isn’t one.

Because CPCs’ anti-choice agenda is central to their mission, the health and safety of their visitors is sometimes sacrificed. After one of our investigator’s ultrasound image showed nothing more than what the CPC volunteer, who was also a nurse, identified as a possible embryonic sac, the volunteer encouraged her to come back to the CPC in a month to receive another free ultrasound. When the investigator said that she would come back after she saw a doctor, the volunteer advised her to wait to see a doctor until she had been back for a second ultrasound because they could not offer free ultrasound services after she sought medical care. Because the nurse estimated that the investigator was eight weeks into her pregnancy, she was therefore discouraging the investigator from seeking prenatal care in her first trimester.

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