COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A city-commissioned investigation into anti-abortion counseling centers has found that they continue to outnumber abortion providers while spreading inaccurate information about the procedure and its outcomes.

More than a year after Columbus City Council authorized a $26,500 contract with Pro-Choice Ohio, the abortion rights group has released its findings into how anti-abortion counseling centers – often referred to as crisis pregnancy centers – operate within city limits.

The report suggests that the centers, which are not health care providers and outnumber abortion providers in the city nearly fivefold, continue to provide misleading information about abortions while increasingly encouraging people to undergo ultrasounds at unregulated centers.

The report also suggests that the centers have swapped more aggressive techniques to discourage people from having abortions for less obvious ones, such as downplaying the risks of maternal mortality and falsely stating that medication abortions can be reversed. Centers have also become more transparent in advertising that they do not provide referrals for abortions.

“This report is a follow-up to a 2013 investigation that found a disturbing pattern of crisis pregnancy center’s willingness to mislead people who turn to them for help,” Jaime Miracle, deputy director of Pro-Choice Ohio, said in a news release. “This report shows those trends continue ten years later, with some marked changes, including pushing individuals to have ultrasounds at these unregulated non-medical facilities.” 

What are anti-abortion counseling centers?

Anti-abortion counseling centers are nonprofits typically operated by faith-based groups that provide limited services – including basic pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and some infant supplies – to pregnant people, often for free. There are more than 200 such centers across the state, including nine in Columbus, and many of them receive state funding through federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grants. 

The Ohio Policy Evaluation Network estimates that one in seven women in Ohio have visited an anti-abortion counseling center. Black women and low-income women were found to be disproportionately more likely to have visited a center – and many centers focus on reaching low-income populations.

Ohio has funded anti-abortion counseling centers since 2013, with the launch of the Parenting and Pregnancy Program within the Department of Job and Family Services. Last year, $6 million was allotted to the program in the state budget; in the upcoming biennial budget, the centers get $7.5 million each year.

Last year, Gov. Mike DeWine signed an executive order allocating more than $1.75 million to the Parenting and Pregnancy Program to distribute funds to anti-abortion counseling centers and “promote childbirth, parenting, and alternatives to abortion.”

There are nine anti-abortion counseling centers in Columbus:

  • Alpha Pregnancy Help Center, at 299 E. Dublin-Granville Road
  • Birthright Columbus, at 3445 Great Western Blvd.
  • Stowe Pregnancy Resource Center, at 888 Parsons Ave.
  • Women’s Clinic of Columbus, at 3242 E. Main St.
  • Pregnancy Decision Health Centers
    • 5900 Cleveland Ave.
    • 22 E. 17th Ave.
    • 4111 W. Broad St.
  • Women’s Care Centers
    • 935 E. Broad St.
    • 3273 E. Main St.

How do anti-abortion counseling centers operate in Columbus?

A decade ago, when Pro-Choice Ohio investigated anti-abortion counseling centers statewide, the organization found that centers strongly discouraged pregnant people from seeking abortions through shame and deception. According to the 2013 investigation, nearly two-thirds of centers failed to disclose that they were not medical facilities, while less than half openly stated they opposed abortion.

In its updated, Columbus-specific investigation that included visits and phone calls to centers, Pro-Choice Ohio found that centers were significantly more transparent, both on their websites and in their facilities, about not providing referrals for abortions. At the same time, the investigation found that centers continued peddling misleading information about abortions, including risks and outcomes.

Nearly all centers emphasized the importance of ultrasounds to confirm pregnancy, despite those ultrasounds not being performed by a trained medical professional in most cases. Center websites frequently cite the fact that up to 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage as a reason to undergo ultrasounds, the investigation found.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wrote in a brief on anti-abortion counseling centers last October that centers commonly cite miscarriage statistics and promote ultrasounds to “delay and perhaps altogether prevent a person from accessing care in many states because of gestational age bans.”

“Facility after facility in our research pushed our investigators to get an ultrasound in part to rule out ectopic pregnancy,” Pro-Choice Ohio’s report reads. “But these centers are not regulated, they are not medical facilities, and the ultrasounds performed are not medical-grade, they are limited, non-diagnostic ultrasounds.”

Two such clinics were operated by the Women’s Care Center, a national network of centers that operates in 12 states. In a statement, Katherine Kelly, outreach director for the Women’s Care Center, did not directly respond to the report’s findings but said the center served more than 3,500 women in 2022, including by distributing thousands of diapers, car seats and baby clothes.

“Open, honest and transparent communication and highly skilled care is the bedrock of our support for women and families,” Kelly said. “These are the reasons, 92% of the women we serve chose life and our Women’s Care Center babies had an average birthweight of 7 lbs. 0 oz.”

Other centers did not respond to requests for comment.

Another commonality among the centers was the promotion of the idea that medication abortions can be reversed. Some centers’ websites linked to an “Abortion Pill Reversal Hotline,” while others advertised that they offered reversal procedures.

The concept of medication abortion reversal is one commonly promoted by anti-abortion activists, who claim that pregnant people who only take mifepristone – the first medication in a two-step protocol – can halt an abortion by taking the hormone progesterone.

A 2015 meta-analysis of more than 1,000 studies found just one suggesting that medication abortion can be stopped by forgoing the second medication. That study, the meta-analysis concluded, featured six patients, was of “poor quality” and did not meet ethical review standards.

Overall, the investigation found, anti-abortion counseling center staff was less judgmental when confronted with a pregnant person considering abortion than they were a decade ago. Investigators reported that center staff in about half of the visits tried to discourage them from having an abortion, while a staff member at one center was “openly hostile” about the procedure.

The report also concluded that anti-abortion counseling centers often downplayed investigators’ concerns about maternal mortality. According to the Ohio Department of Health, the maternal mortality rate in Franklin County stands at 32.1 deaths per 100,000 live births – more than double the department’s target rate.

Among other things, the report recommends the halting of state funding to anti-abortion counseling centers. For the city, the report recommends the prioritization of “comprehensive, longer-term, wrap-around services,” including increased public transportation, access to affordable housing, flexible childcare services, and support programs that divert children from the foster care system and promote family reunification.

Columbus City Councilmembers Lourdes Barroso de Padilla and Shayla Favor, who initiated the commissioned investigation, were not available for comment.

Read the full report below.