The Alamo Women’s Clinic, an abortion provider in downstate Carbondale, sees patients from all over the country. But for some, the clinic is not their first stop.
“A lot of times … the patient will tell us that they’ve already had an ultrasound. And when we start asking more questions about where they may have received that ultrasound, it very likely seems like it was a crisis pregnancy center,” said Andrea Gallegos, the clinic’s executive director.
In Illinois, it might be common for women to encounter a crisis pregnancy center before an abortion provider because the centers are in far greater supply throughout the state, according to a WBEZ analysis of data provided by CPC Map Project at the University of Georgia and from the Abortion Finder directory.
Overall, there are nearly three times as many crisis pregnancy centers in Illinois than abortion providers, the analysis shows. Among the state’s 102 counties, there are 42 counties with crisis pregnancy centers and no in-person abortion providers. Only 12 counties in Illinois have abortion providers, and 23 of the state’s 36 abortion providers are in Cook or DuPage counties.
Michele Landeau, who runs Hope Clinic, an abortion provider in downstate Granite City, has also seen patients who’ve made prior visits to crisis pregnancy centers. In times of crisis, patients sometimes choose what’s closest, Landeau said. “If I find out that I’m pregnant, unexpectedly, and I Google, you know, abortion near me, and a crisis pregnancy center comes up first, and they’re 15 minutes away. And then an abortion clinic comes up second, and they’re four hours away, I’m gonna go to the crisis pregnancy center, of course.”
Crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs, have been at the center of recent debates and protests surrounding abortion access in Illinois. Most often run by nonprofit anti-abortion or religious organizations, they exist in suburban strip malls, rural town Main streets and in downtown Chicago. They are considered one of the most widespread outreach initiatives against abortion.
While the centers offer various pregnancy-related services, they do not offer abortion care or refer patients to facilities where they can receive it. Some have accused the centers of using misinformation to dissuade patients against abortion.
In late July, Gov. JB Pritzker signed a law intended to open the door for lawsuits against CPCs for deceptive practices and misinformation surrounding abortion and pregnancy.
Lisa Battisfore, founder of Reproductive Transparency Now, an organization devoted to raising awareness about CPCs, spoke at the bill signing.
“Crisis pregnancy centers are a cornerstone of the anti-abortion movement strategy. It is not some side activity,” Battisfore said.
Within an hour of the bill’s signing, Chicago-based conservative law firm, the Thomas More Society, filed a lawsuit challenging the law, claiming it violates the centers’ right to religious speech.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Rockford granted the plaintiffs an injunction, temporarily halting enforcement of the law. Judge Iain Johnston, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, wrote that the law violates the First Amendment, calling it a “blatant example of government taking the side of whose speech is sanctionable and whose speech is immunized.”
The office of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul — tasked with enforcing the measure — did not immediately return WBEZ’s requests for comment. Raoul’s office has until Sep. 8 to file a response to Johnston’s ruling.
Distribution of CPCs and abortion providers
Although abortion is legally protected in Illinois, proximity to abortion providers is not consistent throughout the state. Crisis pregnancy centers are much more common and more evenly distributed.
Andrea Swartzendruber, a professor and researcher at the University of Georgia and creator of the CPC Map Project, has been studying CPCs since 2015 and has compiled the most comprehensive data available of their locations across the country. Her research has found that CPCs are most prevalent in the South, followed by the Midwest.
Referencing trends her research team has studied in the past few years, Swartzendruber said CPCs are becoming more medicalized.
“In 2018, we found that 66% of crisis pregnancy centers offered a limited ultrasound. Three years later, we found that 77% of crisis pregnancy centers offered a limited ultrasound,” she said. “We’ve also seen a trend where the centers are changing their names and adopting more medicalized names, including the words ‘health care,’ and ‘clinic.’ ”
Confusing landscape of reproductive healthcare post-Dobbs
The difference between CPCs and abortion providers can be confusing to those seeking abortion care in a landscape that is already complicated after last year’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which took away the constitutional right to abortion. It can often be difficult to ascertain from the name of a center or from its website whether they provide abortions.
Google Maps has recently added a feature that tags clinics as “provides abortions” or “might not provide abortions.” Yelp tags some CPCs with the disclaimer: “Consumer Notice: This is a Crisis Pregnancy Center. Crisis pregnancy centers do not offer abortions or referrals to abortion providers.”
In March, WBEZ visited Empower Life Center, a crisis pregnancy center in Peoria, whose staff members say they do not aim to deceive anyone. They said they will not provide any abortion services or referrals, as it goes against their beliefs as an organization.
Alicia Womer, the center’s director, said people can find information on abortion procedures, medication and contraceptives elsewhere.
But Peoria has not had an abortion provider since its local Planned Parenthood branch burned down in January. The nearest provider is a Planned Parenthood in Bloomington — about a 45-minute drive away.
Landeau said there is a general crisis of inadequate access to fully inclusive pregnancy-related care in local communities.
“I think that it goes to show that it’s really important to have abortion care in the community, community access to all reproductive health services, not just abortion care, not just sexual health care, proper maternal care, proper postpartum care, the whole spectrum of a person,” she said. “A pregnant person’s experience should be covered in their community … that’s what will make healthy communities, not crisis pregnancy centers whose sole purpose is to prevent people from getting an abortion just because of their religious beliefs.”
Claire Kurgan is a data news intern at WBEZ. Mawa Iqbal covers Illinois state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow her @mawa_iqbal