Crisis pregnancy centres hide religious affiliation, stigmatize women seeking post-abortion care: study

, which most people know from transit ads or campus posters, are pathologizing and stigmatizing women who reach out to them after an , according to a new study.

FotoliaFotoliaDepending on who a woman calls for help after an abortion, she'll get very different care, a new study finds.

“In one case, the counsellor ‘diagnosed’ our client and her partner with ‘post-abortion stress disorder’ less than three minutes into the call,” reads the study by University of Ottawa researchers Kathryn J. LaRoche and Angel M. Foster, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Contraception.

“Our findings suggest that despite the fact that we don’t have the same legal restrictions here as we often hear about in the U.S., the anti-choice movement is still very much present,” LaRoche said.

But the umbrella group that represents the bulk of these centres in called the findings “ludicrous” and said all its members are open an transparent about their values and they are filling a necessary gap for the thousands of women who grieve after what they call “abortion loss.”

Critics of crisis pregnancy centres — independent organizations that offer pregnant women support and guidance — have long accused them of misleading pregnant women into seeking what’s supposed to be unbiased advice, only to discourage abortion. But the study, “Toll free but not judgment free: Evaluating post-abortion support services in ,” takes a different look at how they operate in by examining how women are treated after an abortion.

FotoliaFotoliaCrisis pregnancy centres say they offer necessary grief counselling after an abortion and fill a gap in the health-care system.

In the study, a researcher posed as a young woman and contacted 37 providers, divided between a few secular talklines, religious helplines, sexual health clinics and 29 crisis pregnancy centres, 24 of which belong to a national umbrella organization. She used a standard script and biography to counter her own biases and spoke with only 17 of the organizations after the other 20 wanted her to come in person. Ten of them were crisis pregnancy centres.

The research unveiled “significant differences in the client-counsellor interactions… (that) largely fell along the lines of organization type.”

The three binational secular talklines offered non-judgemental, value-free care, the authors find. The three religious talklines all identified themselves immediately as such, but the study notes they were also “infused with medical inaccuracies.”

The 10 crisis pregnancy centres all used religious language but only one disclosed faith-based affiliation to the woman.

I was shocked that several of these lay counsellors ‘diagnosed’ the caller with a ‘disorder’

“I was shocked that several of these lay counsellors ‘diagnosed’ the caller with a ‘disorder,” Foster said. “That these organizations are consistently providing false, inaccurate, and non-evidence-based medical information to callers is disappointing.”

For example, one central Ontario centre told the caller, “An abortion is a traumatic event and many women continue to struggle with the fall out for months or years…If you have several of these symptoms [previously described as depression, anxiety, and self-harm], it does have a name. It’s called post-abortion stress. PAS. Or post-abortion syndrome.”

FotoliaFotoliaExperts agree that many women need help after pregnancy loss, whether it's induced or a miscarriage.

The fake client was often asked if she was having “flashbacks” or other “unsolicited, invasive, and personal questions” such as the physical aspects of the abortion itself.

There is a real need for post-abortion support, said Lola French, executive director of the Canadian Association of Pregnancy Support Services, which represents many crisis pregnancy centres across Canada. She said member organizations always disclose any religious affiliation and dismissed the accusation crisis pregnancy centres “diagnose” or “stigmatize” post-abortive callers.

I think a lost of post-abortive women never get permission to do their grief work

“I think that accusation is ludicrous,” she said. “Would you stigmatize anybody who has grief counselling to do? I think a lost of post-abortive women never get permission to do their grief work. And that’s what crisis pregnancy centres do.”

French also accused the study authors of perpetuating a culture war over abortion.

“It’s a political issue that has been going on for years,” she said, adding with the “exposure of Planned Parenthood” in the U.S. she expects more attacks on crisis pregnancy centres to cross the border into Canada.

Both sides agree on one thing: A need for more post-abortion support services in Ontario to supplement physical medical care.

“We know that evidenced-based factual counselling that’s provided by somebody who’s there to listen… and to let the client lead in a safe confidential space is what works,” said Lauren Dobson-Hughes, executive director of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, adding that’s the case with many pregnancies, whether it’s terminated, results in a birth, or even miscarriage

She also noted, “It’s not counselling if you’re leading them in a certain direction, or if you’re shaming.”

LaRoche pointed to Quebec as an example of how Ontario could improve the situation.

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“In Quebec, the government has come out with materials denouncing crisis pregnancy centres and saying that they provide false information and lie to their clients,” she said.

The Ontario health ministry expressed no willingness to regulate crisis pregnancy centres, instead urging women looking for support to ask their doctors, local public health units or community health care centres.

“I expect all health-care providers to not only provide equitable access to care, but to also ensure that patients are treated with dignity and that their rights are respected,” said Ontario Minister of Health Eric Hoskins in an email statement.

About Ashley Csanady