Who are you? Searching for truth at Attleboro Women’s Health Center

by Jane, a concerned citizen 

I am a physician who has long been aware of, and done a fair amount of reading about, the anti-abortion centers (AACs, aka crisis pregnancy centers) that seek to bring all pregnancies to term. So when the Feminist Action Team of the Indivisible Massachusetts Coalition asked for volunteers to attend open houses at several of these facilities in June, I didn’t hesitate. I went online to RSVP for the open house at the Attleboro Women’s Health Center. In doing so, I noted the name on the RSVP page was different. It said Abundant Hope Pregnancy Resource Center. 

This, along with my visit to the center, raised a LOT of questions.

Why do AACs often have two websites with different names?

In preparation for attending the open house, I discovered these names are affiliated with two very different websites. Each appears designed to attract an entirely distinct group of people. The Attleboro Women’s Health Center website looks similar to one of a medical clinic, complete with pictures of medical equipment, a woman donning scrubs and a stethoscope, and a section where one can book an appointment. In contrast, the website for Abundant Hope Pregnancy Resource Center features pictures of smiling women snuggling babies, cradling pregnant bellies, and blowing bubbles with small children. Though, the Attleboro Women’s Health Center website claims “You’ve Got Options”, and has small sections for abortion, adoption, and parenting options, the Abundant Hope website identifies as a “Christian life-affirming ministry” whose goal is a “community without the need for abortion.” There is a donate link on most pages. One website for clients, and one for donors?

I arrived to find the Attleboro Women’s Health Center name on the front of the building and on the door as I entered. However, a small open house yard sign with an arrow pointing to the facility reads Abundant Hope. Why? Stepping into what looked like a typical doctor’s office waiting room, I found myself to be the only open house guest at the time. It was just me, the director of the center, and a few others — who, if I had to venture a guess, probably arrived along with the yard sign. Nobody wore scrubs or a stethoscope. Nevertheless, I was greeted warmly by the director who was happy to offer a tour. 

Who is qualified to provide counseling?

My first stop on the tour was a “counseling” room, a comfortably appointed space where the director said clients received counseling from a registered nurse. As the daughter and sister of registered nurses, neither of whom received special training in pregnancy or abortion counseling, I wanted to ask what qualified their nurse to provide such a service and which medical resources they cited when offering said counseling. Do they cite The Turnaway Study, the main finding of which is that “receiving an abortion does not harm the health and wellbeing of women, but in fact, being denied an abortion results in worse financial, health and family outcomes?” Did they receive special training in counseling? If so, from where? Who is the nurse, and why aren’t there any credentials listed on the website? But I refrained because I didn’t want to wear out my welcome too soon. I wanted to see the ultrasound room, and that was the next stop. 

What differentiates your pregnancy tests from store bought ones?

As we walked, I asked about what their website touts as “lab quality“ pregnancy tests. I was told the tests were made by the same people who make the over the counter ones. But, my guide explained, these were specially made for the center and could detect a pregnancy earlier (maybe as early as 8 days) than store-bought home pregnancy tests. I would have asked to see the “lab quality” tests because I am skeptical that such tests exist or that there is sufficient demand to justify their manufacture. But this was not a hill I wanted to die on. And, the ultrasound machine was in sight. 

Is an ultrasound medically necessary so early in pregnancy? 

The ultrasound room looks just like the room where I had had my annual OBGYN exam only one week prior. It was disorienting. I asked about the purpose for doing an ultrasound immediately following a positive pregnancy test, which I had just been told could detect a pregnancy as early as 8 days. I was told the ultrasounds are performed to determine gestational age, viability, and location of the pregnancy. I could see how patients might be confused — perhaps by design — if they asked why they were having an ultrasound. A quick glance at the website of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) reveals that, outside of AACs, ultrasounds are not standard during the first trimester of a pregnancy. So, why is the center performing these non-standard ultrasounds? 

Who interprets the images and provides results to the patients?

My guide said that ultrasounds are performed by Registered Medical Diagnostic Ultrasonographers (RMDU). Radiology is not my specialty, nor do I have firsthand knowledge of what an RMDU is or is not qualified to do. So, I asked if interpreting the images is within their scope of practice. The director initially said yes. But, upon further questioning, admitted that all ultrasounds are eventually read by a physician. And, though patients are given results by a sonographer on the spot, they are told those results are “not final” until they are “later” read by a physician. I wonder, how much later? How do they ensure the client gets the results from the physician? Who are the sonographer and physician? Why aren’t their names and credentials listed on the website?

I’d soon learn I should have asked at least a few more questions. In a tragic turn of events, just five days after my visit to the open house, news broke of a lawsuit that had been filed against a different AAC, located just 45 minutes away in Worcester. At that facility, which to my knowledge is not affiliated with the Attleboro one, a nurse reportedly “failed to spot an ectopic pregnancy, threatening a patient’s life.” A class-action complaint Jane Doe v. Clearway Clinic alleges the center “does not provide medical documentation stating that the diagnoses it provides to patients are performed by nurses prior to any review of a medical doctor. The nurses making these diagnoses are not licensed to diagnose viable pregnancies.” I can’t help but wonder, is this the same thing that is being done in Attleboro? 

What is the scientific evidence for the safety and efficacy of “abortion pill reversal”

Moving on, I inquired about a sign in the center’s side window that advertises “abortion pill reversal.” The window conveniently faces an adjacent building where a licensed clinic provides gynecological and reproductive health care options, including abortions. Indeed, I was told, the center offers this service. I asked if my guide was aware that ACOG had made a public statement indicating “claims about abortion pill reversal are not based in science and do not meet clinical standards.” Her facial expression made it clear she was aware. When pushed for her scientific evidence for the safety and efficacy of “abortion pill reversal,” she offered this: “Seven live births, and three on the way.” Any reputable clinician knows that is not how science works.

Do you educate clients on barrier methods for sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention?

I used our walk to the door to squeeze in several more questions. I asked about testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which I had seen on the website. She said they test for chlamydia and gonorrhea but do not offer treatment. Though, they are reportedly “working towards” treating, they currently refer those with positive tests elsewhere for treatment. I asked whether they educated people about barrier methods of contraception, which are highly effective for STI prevention. I don’t think I ever got a direct answer to this question. It was at this point that my guide asked, for the fourth time, who I was, where I was from, and why I had come to their open house. I responded that I was a concerned citizen who had read about centers like hers and wanted to ask questions so I could form an educated opinion — all of which was true. Though her voice remained pleasant, she appeared annoyed and said something to the effect of “so, are we done here?” It was clear that my tour was over. 

Offended, angry, and still have questions

Looking back, I realize that seeing an anti-abortion center up close had left me offended: Offended as a physician that the bona fide practice of medicine is being demeaned by the people who operate these centers. And, offended as a woman, that they have so little respect for me and others who can get pregnant that they are willing to risk our health and safety to achieve their agenda.

I was also angry thinking of the money the center spent on expensive equipment, unnecessary ultrasounds, website design, and advertising that could be better used to buy diapers, clothing, and other supplies for those in need who actually want to carry their pregnancies to term.

And I still had questions. How do they get away with providing a treatment that does not meet clinical standards? Why do they provide STI testing if they don’t offer treatment or prevention education? If their goal is “a community without the need for abortion,” why don’t they educate clients about contraception? Why has so much effort been put into making the facility look like a medical clinic when one of their websites, in very fine print at the very bottom of the page, says, “We do not provide gynecologic or extended obstetrical care”? 

If you also feel offended — and angry — at the deceptive practices that anti-abortion centers use to undermine abortions for unwanted pregnancies, help the IMC Feminist Action Team expose the harm these centers pose. We meet online most Fridays at 4:00. Click here to learn more.

I also encourage you to ask questions of an AAC near you and encourage your local reporters and elected officials to do the same.