“Come on in my love, someone will be with you shortly,” a woman says, welcoming me into a ‘crisis centre’ for women with unwanted pregnancies in a suburb of Mexico City. "I'm going to give you a hug," she adds, with a kiss on the cheek.
The woman’s greeting is warm and it chimes with the centre’s online advertising, on a website called interrumpir-embarazo.com (‘interrupt-pregnancy.com’), as “a group of women who know how difficult it is to face an unwanted pregnancy”, who promise to “accompany you, with security and discretion”.
This website also suggests that the centre performs abortions itself. Top of the list of its advertised services is “ILE”, the Spanish acronym for ‘legal pregnancy interruption’. But this is all very misleading, as I discovered.
This centre in Mexico City is not, in fact, a neutral, local support group or an abortion provider. Rather, it is part of a global network of anti-abortion ‘crisis pregnancy centres’, supported by US religious-right activists that have links to the administration of Donald Trump. Many also oppose modern contraception.
After a six-month openDemocracy investigation, major aid donors and NGOs have said they will investigate anti-LGBT ‘conversion therapy’ at health facilities run by groups they fund.
But unlike the other aid donors, US aid agency PEPFAR has not responded at all.
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This network has been condemned by lawmakers, doctors and rights advocates for “disinformation, emotional manipulation and outright deceit”, following an eighteen-country investigation by openDemocracy.
Nine months ago, we began following the money of two US religious right groups. Then, we deployed our own global network – of feminist investigative journalists.
At numerous centres around the world, undercover reporters posing as vulnerable women with unwanted pregnancies were told incorrect medical information – including that abortion significantly increases risks of getting cancer and mental illnesses – and pushed to continue pregnancies whatever their wishes.
Lawmakers across Latin America have called for action in response to these findings. Some raised concerns such centres are able to avoid medical advice regulations as they are not required to register as healthcare service providers.
In Argentina, parliamentarian Mónica Macha from the ruling coalition said these centres must not be “allowed to act in the shadows” and called on authorities “to investigate whether their practices are fully legal”.
In Ecuador, the chair of the parliamentary justice committee, Ximena Peña, said openDemocracy’s findings should be “handed over to relevant authorities” for investigation. In Mexico City, Secretary of Health Oliva López said that her department is “undertaking review, surveillance and monitoring actions and, will – if applicable – impose a sanction” against these centres.
As part of openDemocracy’s global investigation, one weekday morning I went to the centre in the suburb of Mexico City that was advertised on interrumpir-embarazo.com. It made no mention of its anti-abortion agenda in the advertisements I found online.
Sitting in a windowless room with a small makeshift bed and pillow, staff at this centre wrongly claimed that three out of ten women suffer serious complications from abortions, including perforation of the uterus or intestine and painful deaths (serious complications from safe abortion services are actually extremely rare).
They continued, also incorrectly: “Did you know that a hospital will not treat you if you arrive with a haemorrhage as a complication?” (By law, public hospitals across Mexico must treat anyone who arrives at an emergency ward.)
Over 50 minutes, they mentioned my partner, and his “right to choose”, more than twenty times – and even wrongly suggested that I would need written consent from him or a relative in order to access a legal abortion (in fact, abortions are legal in Mexico City, upon request, within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy).
They placed copies of a supposed consent form on the desk between us. On the paper were spaces for two signatures. “Does my partner really need to sign this?” I asked. "Well, yes, a relative or someone in charge is required."
They continued: "If the intestine is perforated during the procedure or if there was damage to the uterus… you would be authorising, along with your boyfriend, at any given time, if necessary, to have your uterus removed.”
“You’d be authorising, along with your boyfriend, at any given time, if necessary, to have your uterus removed”
Marta Lamas, one of Mexico’s most prominent feminists and a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, called openDemocracy’s findings “truly scandalous”, condemning a “strategy of scaring women, lying to them”.
Ana Maria Camarillo, president of the reproductive rights network Colectivo de Asociaciones para la Interrupción Legal del Embarazo (CAMILE) added: “We don't understand how they’re allowed to operate when they lie so much.”
At the federal level, senator Patricia Mercado said these centres are “dishonestly taking advantage of a legal loophole” and fall beyond regulatory oversight as they’re not required to be registered as healthcare service providers. “Beyond legislation”, she called for public policies to spread information and access to abortion services.
US cash and connections
Over the past nine months, openDemocracy worked with undercover reporters to contact affiliates of the Ohio-based group Heartbeat International on five continents. This group has celebrated its “new friends in Washington”, including Vice President Mike Pence, who has spoken at its events.
Heartbeat has supported ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ around the world since its founding in the early 1970s, ahead of the nationwide legalisation of abortion in the US. There are now thousands of these centres across the US, where they have been the subject of numerous controversies including over misinformation.
Today, Heartbeat also has hundreds of affiliated centres outside the US – including seventy in Mexico alone and others across Latin America, where it has a partnership with the Centros de Ayuda para la Mujer (CAM) regional network.
The CAM network was founded in the 1980s after a local activist attended a US conference organised by another anti-abortion group, Virginia-based Human Life International (HLI), whose founder once called contraception a “moral cancer”.
According to its US financial filings, Heartbeat has given the CAM network, which is headquartered in Mexico, at least $25,000 in grants since 2012, for “training, consultation, and support of our common affiliates”.
HLI says it spent about $920,000 in Central America and the Caribbean from 2008-2014, and more than $230,000 in Latin America from 2015-2017. It’s unclear how much of this money went to the CAM network, but HLI’s logo, along with Heartbeat’s, is prominent on the front page of CAM’s website.
In the US, both of these groups are also connected to former Trump administration official Scott Lloyd, who lost his job after it emerged that he’d mishandled abortion requests from migrant teenagers. Previously, he served on the board of a Heartbeat affiliate in Virginia and founded a Christian law firm based at HLI’s headquarters.
In 2017, US investigative journalists also revealed that immigrant minors who requested abortions while in federal custody at the border with Mexico were being referred to some of Heartbeat’s affiliates for counselling.
“Don’t change your life. It’s your decision”
Around the world, openDemocracy found numerous examples of misleading advertising and incorrect medical information at centres affiliated with Heartbeat, including websites and posters that don’t disclose their anti-abortion agendas.
In four Latin American countries, reporters also found centres in the CAM network specifically targeting women looking for abortion information and services online. Some present themselves as pro-choice groups, or even as abortion providers.
One of these centres, in Ecuador, proclaims online: “Don’t change your life. It’s your decision” – and appears to offer the drug misoprostol for medical abortions.
In Costa Rica another centre advertises on a website called quieroabortarcr.com (‘iwanttogetanabortioncr.com’), while a centre in Argentina has its mobile number listed on embarazoinesperado.com (‘unexpectedpregnancy.com’).
‘Why don’t you want to have your baby?’
On Facebook, a second CAM centre in Mexico City displays a photo of a doctor wearing scrubs, a lab coat and stethoscope, with the description: “Who are we? Specialists on medical abortions.” It does not make its anti-abortion or religious positions clear – though when I visited this centre, they were immediately obvious.
The staff at this second centre, pictured above, quickly asked me about my religion and demanded to know: “Why don’t you want to have your baby?” Despite its claim on Facebook to be “specialists on medical abortion”, it did not look like a medical clinic, and the staff I spoke to admitted, when asked, that they were not medical professionals.
However they still offered me an ultrasound as part of their anti-abortion ‘counselling’, and psychological therapy for ‘post-abortion syndrome’ (which has been refuted by global health bodies as flawed and lacking in scientific evidence).
While this centre’s online presence also made no suggestion of its international connections, inside I was left alone in a room to watch a video describing how having a medical abortion could kill me – in English with Spanish subtitles.
They offered me an ultrasound as part of their anti-abortion ‘counselling’
Across the region, undercover reporters had similar experiences at several other centres. In Costa Rica, for example, a reporter was shown a different video with a US narrator. She was also told that risks of abortions include cardiac arrest, cerebral palsy and anger-management issues when “life becomes hell”.
Internationally, openDemocracy found dozens of these centres operating inside public hospitals in Italy. At one, staff also warned a reporter about ‘post-abortion syndrome’ and told her that having an abortion can cause cancer – whereas having a baby, they claimed, can cure serious illnesses including leukaemia.
In Spain, where the only other ‘clients’ our reporter saw were Latin American migrant women, she was given a copy of an article warning that after an abortion a woman is up to “144% more likely” to physically abuse their children.
"This is a rule of law issue"
Responding to openDemocracy’s questions, Heartbeat said “we stand firmly by our Commitment of Care” – which commits affiliates to accuracy in their information and advertising. “Different countries have their cultures and varied ways of communicating, the fact remains that abortion carries risks to women”, it added.
“With love and truth, our goal is to help the client understand abortion more fully, so that she can truly make an informed decision.”
In Latin America, the regional CAM network did not respond to emailed questions and requests for comments, and neither did any of the centres visited by reporters in México, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Argentina. HLI declined to comment.
Meanwhile Marta Lamas, the prominent Mexican feminist, called openDemocracy’s findings “proof of something that we suspected and knew existed, of a campaign of lies and deceit from fundamentalist groups on the right, but we never before had this type of proof”. She said: “I am quite shocked.”
“The problem with these ‘clinics’ is they omit or distort information”, added Regina Tamés, outgoing executive director of the Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (GIRE) reproductive rights group. “It’s deceiving women and not providing them all the necessary information they need to make a responsible decision”.
Internationally, Human Rights Watch senior researcher Hillary Margolis called for stronger regulations against misleading advertising as well as government action to “counter myths about sex, pregnancy, and reproductive rights”.
“Every woman, everywhere, regardless of location or situation, deserves the right to accurate information,” wrote MEPs from across parties in a letter to European commissioners demanding “firm action” in response to this investigation.
“Every politician,” added Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, regardless of their position on abortion, “should be very concerned that the laws of their country are being circumvented through disinformation, emotional manipulation and outright deceit.”
“This is a rule of law issue”, he insisted.
*Additional reporting by Diana Cariboni.
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