In her office at the Crossroads Pregnancy Center in Milledgeville, Georgia, Pam Alford hung a picture of a grave-filled cemetery in memory of the thousands of the abortions taking place every day in America. Or so says the caption.
Other indications of the center staff’s attitude to abortion fill public areas of the building. Someone has stenciled “life is beautiful” in a hallway. Figurines of Jesus and the cross line the lunch area walls.
But from the outside one might not know it. The Crossroads facility is one of thousands of “crisis pregnancy centers” that have appeared all over the US as a controversial part of the ongoing fight over women’s reproductive rights.
Known as “fake clinics” by pro-choice activists, and coined pregnancy resource centers by anti-abortion supporters, they are accused of posing as medical centers aimed at helping pregnant women, or even looking like abortion clinics. They are part of the anti-abortion movement, newly galvanized in the US in the wake of a raft of anti-abortion legislation passed across the US, but especially in conservative, southern states such as Georgia.
Crisis pregnancy centers are not places for impartial advice for women weighing their options: they are places where women are lobbied – sometimes subtly, sometimes not – to carry pregnancies to term. Critics say they are “disingenuous and predatory”.
The Crossroads building is an inconspicuous single-story structure, sitting next to a CVS pharmacy near downtown. It is quiet before the center opens. A handful of volunteers, the volunteer nurse, Hannah Coyle, the executive director, and Alford, the client services manager, are gathered in the conference room to pray.
Before the front door is unlocked, Coyle, 27, leads the end of the prayer meeting and begins: “Father, I just know that you’ve got something planned today, working with our clients and we just pray that you use them and guide them all.”
There are more than 90 centers spread out across Georgia, training and functioning under multiple religious organizations. Many offer counseling sessions, pregnancy tests and alternatives to abortions such as adoption. They outnumber abortion providers in Georgia nearly three to one in a state that just passed one of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the country, which, if it comes into effect, will virtually outlaw abortion after six weeks.
Crossroads associates with the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), which says it “exists to protect life-affirming pregnancy centers that empower abortion-vulnerable women and families to choose life for their unborn children”.
Milledgeville’s pregnancy center has been around for 27 years, renting various spaces in town. A decade ago, the center rebranded itself as a medical clinic, and found a permanent spot to ensure it could offer ultrasounds and pregnancy tests from the registered nurse, Joy Lori Lyle. No one else, including the volunteers who intake patient information and offer counseling to the women who come in, is a medical professional.
The Georgia department of public health did not answer questions via multiple emails or phone calls asking for clarification on the requirements for a pregnancy center to identify as a medical clinic. Multiple calls to the department went unanswered.
Now, because the center has Lyle, they have a brand new ultrasound machine in a room where eight figures of a fetus in utero at various stages of the pregnancy line two shelves. “They get all their options [here] instead of like, you know, instead of just one,” Lyle said, referring to abortion.
Though the center doesn’t offer abortion as an option, she clarified.
“Well, let’s share one thing that you might not see on an ultrasound until six weeks. The heartbeat,” Lyle said, referring to the new law Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, signed.
“The heartbeat is at its earliest detection at 18 days, so, just letting you know,” she added, but was unable to provide the science or research behind that assertion.
“They just want to squash us like bugs!” she shouted, her southern twang becoming shrill, referring to pro-choice activists.
That’s when Alford changed the subject. We’re an information station, not a pregnancy center, she interrupted, ushering the conversation away from abortion.
As Alford provided a tour of the facility, she pointed out the five appointments scheduled for visitors; one pregnancy test and four “earn while you learn” video sessions. For purple “mommy money” and green “daddy dollars” people in various stages of a pregnancy watch videos with titles such as Safe from the Start, Parenting with Respect and others on how to interact with your child or breastfeeding. The “money” can be spent on diapers, formula, blankets or onesies in a pistachio green room called the Stork’s Nest. Initially, Coyle had offered the Guardian the chance to sit in on some of the sessions but rescinded the offer.
Crossroads serves three neighboring counties, much of the area rural, some of them poor. Lyle acknowledged later, over her salad, that the clients, as they are called by staff, tend to live below the poverty line and the center’s offerings incentivize their return.
“Everything is free here. Everything,” Lyle added.
If and when the anti-abortion law in Georgia goes into effect, no one on staff at the center believes it will close even as abortion would become exponentially more difficult. Everyone in the office that day sees a need for its continuance because the center is not strictly anti-abortion but also about pregnancy more broadly, Lyle insisted.
Coyle, the director, who had been listening, agreed. “Yeah, we get a lot of people that just need a hug and encouraging word.”
A few minutes later, the center’s chairwoman entered the conference room turned lunch room that day, asking, as many others had that day, if the Guardian was anti-abortion. Without an answer, the visit was suddenly cut short.