GREELEY — Isabel Serafin hid the “pregnant pee” under her clothes, sealed in a glass container surrounded by hand-warmers. She kept her phone in her pocket, recording audio, as she walked into the pregnancy center waiting room.
The University of Northern Colorado student was on an undercover mission to find out what happens when a young woman who fears she is pregnant visits The Resource Center, a religious-based, anti-abortion nonprofit that looks like a typical medical clinic or doctor’s office.
The center, a few blocks from the UNC campus, advertises free pregnancy and STD tests in the University Center and hands out water bottles bearing its slogan: “Tests4Greeley.” Bus benches just across the sidewalk from the college depict a worried-looking girl with the question in bold: “Pregnant?”
“Free tests. Private. Medical,” the benches and a billboard say, making no mention that the center is Christian-based or that its mission is to counsel women to carry babies to term. The center considers itself a medical clinic because it has licensed nurses and a medical director who is a physician, but it does not offer birth control, gynecology or prenatal care — only pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and prenatal vitamins.
It’s this perceived deception that is now evoking outrage and has ignited a battle between the 40-year-old pregnancy center and a group of young women, including Serafin, a 20-year-old international affairs student at UNC. The northern Colorado town is the state’s new ground zero in abortion-rights groups’ war on “fake clinics,” defined by the movement as religous counseling centers that attempt to lure young women through their doors by portraying themselves as full-service medical clinics.
Colorado has more than 50 religious-based pregnancy centers that encourage women to keep their babies or link them with adoption agencies. That compares with 18 Planned Parenthood clinics — 10 of which offer abortion services — and 76 state-funded health clinic locations that offer low-cost birth control.
In five rural counties, the only pregnancy center or clinic is a faith-based one, according to a Colorado Sun analysis.
The abortion rate is declining in Colorado and nationwide. There was a 10% drop in the abortion rate in this state from 2014 to 2017 — that is 12.1 abortions per 1,000 women in 2014, compared with 10.9 abortions per 1,000 women in 2017.
Nationally, the rate dropped to 13.5 abortions per 1,000 women age 15-44 in 2017, according to the Guttmacher Institute. This is the lowest rate on record since abortion was legalized in 1973. Most abortions — 95% — occurred in clinics, while 5% occured in doctor’s offices or hospitals.
Women in their 20s accounted for the majority of abortions in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 91% of abortions occured at 13 weeks or earlier.
It’s not wrong to counsel pregnant women away from abortion or offer support to help them to keep their babies, say those opposed to the religious-based centers. Many of the centers provide everything from diapers and car seats to help finding housing and prenatal care. At the heart of the controversy, however, is whether the centers are disingenuous in their advertising.
“I have no problem at all with organizations helping women who decide to continue their pregnancies,” said Lisa Radelet, spokeswoman for Boulder Valley Women’s Health, which provides birth control and abortion. “The problem with these places is they’re deceptive, intentionally deceptive. They promote themselves as offering services they actually don’t, like gynecology.”
Abigail Hutchings, who graduated from UNC in May and is now an intern at NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, created a website this fall titled “Truth4Greeley” — a wordplay attack on “Tests4Greeley.” She is collecting and posting stories of students who went to the Greeley pregnancy center not realizing it was an anti-abortion counseling center.
“If the Resource Center isn’t going to be upfront about who they are and what they do, we should let people know,” Hutchings said.
Her website demands anti-abortion counseling centers “be held accountable for abusing the trust of the communities they serve.”
Hutchings and other young activists are making plans to ask the UNC Board of Trustees to enact a stricter policy for community groups that want to advertise on campus — religious clinics should identify themselves as such, they say. If the process works in Greeley, they want to do the same in other college towns across Colorado.
In response to the “Truth4Greeley” website and flyers the young women dispersed on campus, the Resource Center said it hired an attorney to review the Truth4Greeley site for defamation. The center’s website now includes this question: “Are we a fake clinic? People with differing opinions about your sexual health decisions may warn you to be careful of FAKE medical clinics.”
An abortion video, an ultrasound offer, and prayer
The center’s executive director, Gail Holmes, said she wanted to give The Colorado Sun a tour of the center’s medical lab and equipment but was advised against it by the nonprofit’s attorney.
The center’s website bills its facility as a “community-funded medical center” and says its staff includes licensed registered nurses, who perform ultrasounds. The center also has “medical-grade urine” pregnancy tests and an advisory board that includes local doctors.
Its waiting room looks similar to a doctor’s office, with a receptionist, chairs and magazines. A sign above the doors leading into the ultrasound and lab area says, “Medical Wing.”
In an email, Holmes said that if “our opponents would just stop by to see what is here they might be embarrassed to have promoted such inaccurate information.”
During Serafin’s sting operation in October, a Resource Center worker showed her a video of a surgical abortion, asked about her religious background and her relationship with the baby’s father. The woman, who counseled Serafin in an office, said she has a daughter who chose to keep a baby even though the child was conceived during a rape, according to a transcript of the appointment.
After nearly an hour of talk about the benefits of adoption, the risks of abortion and Biblical references to adoption, Serafin went to the bathroom to take a pregnancy test. It was positive, thanks to the urine taken from a pregnant friend and concealed in Serafin’s clothes. The center staffer offered Serafin an ultrasound — Serafin declined — and asked if they could pray together. The staffer led a “repeat-after-me prayer” as she placed her hand on Serafin’s head, Serafin said.
The college student walked out stunned. “If you were pregnant and you were scared, it would be totally overwhelming,” Serafin said. “It really worries me about the freshmen coming in here. I think it’s appalling that the university is allowing them to advertise on campus.
“I think this poses a serious medical risk to students at UNC,” she said, describing a lack of “real medical advice.” Serafin worries that “the shame” center employees “put on sexually active students could also be harmful to their mental health.”
The Resource Center, similar to other pregnancy centers in Colorado, is free to clients and does not accept insurance. This means it is not subject to HIPAA — federal law that requires confidentiality of medical information.
University spokesman Nate Haas said organizations that rent tables in the University Center are required to identify themselves but that the university does not regulate their messaging. He also noted the university’s Student Health Center offers low-cost services, including birth control and pregnancy and STD testing.
Another young woman, a recent graduate of UNC who spoke on condition of anonymity so she could speak freely about her medical and sexual history, went to the pregnancy center for a free STD test after she learned her boyfriend was not monogamous. She got the test, but only after “a lot of prying questions” about whether she had a relationship with God and why she was having premarital sex, the woman said in an interview with The Sun.
She thought it was odd the staff member did not discuss birth control options and was disappointed the center tested for only two sexually transmitted diseases, gonorrhea and chlamydia, via urine sample. She had hoped for a full screen including for HIV and syphilis.
The staff member prayed over her after asking permission, the now 23-year-old said. She described the prayer as “grandma is praying for you because they truly want you to be good and have good in the world.”
“It’s truly coming from a place of wanting to help,” the woman told The Sun, “but it’s misguided.”
A mobile “Stork” unit offers ultrasounds in Pueblo neighborhoods, rural areas
Until the past few years, centers that encourage women not to terminate their pregnancies called themselves “crisis pregnancy centers.” The word “crisis” was dropped and many now use the words “resource” or “choices” or “alternatives.”
“We don’t consider a baby a crisis,” said Connie Weiskopf, executive director of the newly opened Boulder Pregnancy Resource Center and a Christian speaker and writer. “Even though a woman might be feeling a crisis at the moment, the pregnancy itself isn’t a crisis. The situation might be. We can come alongside her and provide the resources so it’s not a crisis.”
The majority of Colorado’s religious-based pregnancy centers opened in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, though several opened or expanded services in the past few years. The Resource Center in Greeley, for example, recently opened a second location, in Windsor.
Most are affiliated with at least one national anti-abortion group, including CareNet, Heartbeat International and National Institute of Family and Life Advocates. Some are near Planned Parenthood or other abortion providers. For example, a Focus on the Family article about the new Boulder center noted its proximity just blocks from a clinic that performs late-term abortions.
Pueblo’s pregnancy center opened 35 years ago near the former location of the city’s Planned Parenthood, which closed in 2015. In the early 1980s, a Pueblo woman persuaded the elders in a local church to open a crisis pregnancy center so women would have a place to go if they needed help keeping their babies.
The original, church-based center that offered only mentoring eventually became A Caring Pregnancy Center. The center evolved through the years to help clients apply for food stamps and other government-assistance programs or to find doctors and housing. In 2007, it added lab testing, registered nurses and ultrasounds, Executive Director Tamra Axworthy said. No birth control is provided.
Last year, the center added a mobile unit purchased from the national group Save the Storks. The van with ultrasound equipment travels to pregnancy support centers in Walsenburg, La Junta, Westcliffe and Cañon City. “We are able to go out there and provide that first touch,” Axworthy said.
The Stork unit parks near a Family Dollar store in Pueblo and makes the rounds in the low-income neighborhood of Dog Patch and the Colorado State University-Pueblo campus. The typical client is a 19- to 24-year-old Latina, and 78% of clients fall below the federal poverty level, Axworthy said. Younger teenagers choosing to keep their babies typically are getting help from their grandmothers, mothers or other relatives, she said.
The Pueblo center’s website makes its mission clear: “We exist to empower women and families … to choose life and thrive,” it says at the top of the page.
“We don’t want to mislead anyone,” Axworthy said. “We also want them to know it’s a comfortable place where they are going to be treated as humans.”
But, like many centers, A Caring Pregnancy Center is wary of the press. Before granting an interview with Axworthy, a center employee requested The Sun go through a vetting process, in which she asked who else The Sun was interviewing for the story. The Sun did not provide names.
National organizations, including Heartbeat International, CareNet and NIFLA, did not respond to interview requests or wanted to know who else The Sun was talking to for this story and a list of questions in advance.
Axworthy said the centers feel under attack in the divided political climate and noted that a 2018 rant by comedian John Oliver about crisis pregnancy centers prompted backlash. “Everybody is just being really cautious. A lot of centers have been burned,” Axworthy said, noting she was “smeared” in a recent story about the guest speaker for the center’s fundraising banquet.
The speaker, Abby Johnson, is a former Planned Parenthood director turned anti-abortion activist who has come under fire for suggesting anti-abortion centers should “appear neutral” about women’s health care until getting clients through the door.
The Pueblo center was also the target of online attacks after its mobile unit went to the Colorado State Fair in 2018, and it has had fake clients who pretended they were pregnant but were actually abortion-rights activists, Axworthy said. Their policy is to answer questions the same way as usual, even if staff suspects a client is not genuine, she said.
The Pueblo center does not show a video of abortion to clients “unless they ask,” and does not pray with them unless the appointment leads in a spiritual direction, Axworthy said. “Our staff aren’t the ones out protesting and showing awful, graphic pictures,” she said. “We are here to help the patients, not cause a frenzy.”
The Pueblo center — which touts “206 families rescued from abortion” in 2018 — is almost entirely funded by donors and churches, save for a few grants. A fundraising banquet earlier this month had more than 900 attendees — so was basically “the biggest event in Pueblo,” Axworthy said. “That’s huge for Pueblo, and that’s huge for our center.”
Kiera Hatton, who is NARAL Pro-Choice’s southern Colorado liaison, said she can feel the pregnancy center gaining force politically in her area.
“This movement is growing. It’s deeply worrisome,” she said, agreeing that 900 people at one event is like the “biggest thing in Pueblo that ever happened.”
Part of Hatton’s job is to help women who call her asking where they can get an abortion and, sometimes, whether she can help them pay for it. Hatton knows of a handful of doctors in the Pueblo area who provide abortions, but they don’t advertise. “Unless someone finds me, they won’t know who they are,” she said.
She also sends women to the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. For those who need financial assistance to pay for an abortion, Hatton helps them apply to the Women’s Freedom Fund, which is now managed by NARAL but was started by First Universalist Church of Denver in 1984 — the year Colorado voters ended Medicaid funding for abortions.
Hatton, who was pregnant as a teenager and gave birth to a daughter who is now 18, does not consider the Pueblo pregnancy center a “fake clinic” because it does provide some medical care. But she calls its version of health care “overwhelming and deceiving.”
Young women who find out they are pregnant need the full array of choices explained to them by a doctor, the way Hatton’s doctor did when she was a teenager, she said. Not doing so is wrong, she charged.
“Whether or not it’s illegal, it is morally reprehensible,” she said.
Allies in banning late-term abortion in Colorado
Pregnancy centers have a strong ally in Colorado — the proponents of a proposed ballot measure to restrict late-term abortion in the state.
Staff and volunteers from several Colorado pregnancy centers are helping collect signatures for the initiative, which would ban late-term abortions, said Keri Ebel, with the Coalition for Women and Children and the “Due Date Too Late” campaign to ban late-term abortions.
The measure, called Initiative 120, would prohibit abortions after 22 weeks, except when the mother’s life is at risk.
Pregnancy resource centers “empower women to see how it is possible to give life to their child,” Ebel said. “Too often, abortion clinics teach the mantra that women simply can’t find success in life with an unplanned child. We disagree.”
Pregnancy centers are one of the few places where women can get free ultrasounds, she said, a key resource in making an informed choice.
“We see a cultural shift in views on abortion, partly due to improvements in technology looking inside the womb,” Ebel said. “Millennials and Gen Z have grown up with detailed 3-D ultrasound pictures of their unborn siblings on the refrigerator. They see a baby.”
Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains has closed a handful of health centers in recent years. The Parker and Longmont locations shut their doors in 2017. And, in 2013, the La Junta and east Colorado Springs centers merged. The decisions were made based on “long-term sustainability,” said Neta Meltzer, strategic communications director.
The organization, along with NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, has worked to expose what it terms “fake clinics.”
“Fake clinics fail to provide full and accurate information to patients about their health care options and are engaged in a violation of the patient-provider relationship,” Meltzer said. “Coloradans deserve better.”
Baby-bottle fundraisers and millions in donations
Pregnancy centers report raising money in a variety of ways, from galas with prominent speakers to pledge walks to “baby-bottle” fundraisers that encourage supporters to keep a baby bottle in their home and fill it with money to donate. One center held a shooting competition to raise money in 2018.
A September gala held by the new Boulder Pregnancy Resource Center raised nearly $154,000, according to an email sent to supporters. The event featured former Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow’s mother, Pam Tebow, who said she was encouraged to have an abortion when she was pregnant with Tim.
“It was awesome,” said Weiskopf, the center’s director. “Pam Tebow was fabulous. She’s just very passionate.”
A review of nonprofit income tax filings for 28 of the pregnancy centers in Colorado, several of which operate multiple sites, showed nearly $10.5 million in donations in 2017. Spending for those 28 centers — for ultrasounds, pregnancy tests, STD tests, post-pregnancy counseling and education — totaled $9.6 million. Tax documents for several smaller centers weren’t available.
Several of the centers are affiliated with churches or part of larger nonprofit groups. For instance, Denver’s Riverside Church, part of the Southern Baptist denomination, operates Riverside Pregnancy Center.
Bella Natural Women’s Health, which has an Englewood clinic and also operates Marisol Health in Lafayette and Denver, reported nearly $2 million in revenue in 2017. Marisol Health is funded through Catholic Charities, which described the centers as “fully equipped to help women make informed decisions about their reproductive health.”
Unlike some other pregnancy centers, Marisol is a medical clinic — it has physicians on staff and provides prenatal care and gynecological care for women of all ages. It provides abortion pill reversals for women who have taken medications to terminate a pregnancy but then changed their mind. The reversal pill is controversial — a research study in California was halted this year after three women had such severe vaginal bleeding they required ambulances.
The Marisol clinics do not provide birth control but teach patients to track their fertility cycle for natural family planning.
Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains brought in $45 million and spent $42.5 million in fiscal 2017. It reported serving more than 93,000 people in 29 clinics in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Wyoming that year.
Besides abortion clinics and religious-based pregnancy centers, Colorado has 76 health clinics that participate in a state-funded family-planning program, which offers free or low-cost intrauterine devices, birth control pills and contraceptive shots. Because of federal rules that went into effect this year, those clinics cannot refer patients for an abortion if they accept the federal dollars.
Of Colorado’s 64 counties, 46 have at least one clinic offering birth control or a pregnancy resource center that offers pregnancy testing. Five counties – Custer, Fremont, Las Animas, Otero and Rio Blanco – have pregnancy resource centers but no state or federally funded birth-control options for low-income women.
The religious-based centers rely on donations for support, and much of that comes from other nonprofits. The Sun identified about $2.6 million in grants from other nonprofits reported on tax documents between 2016 and 2018 for about 30 of the clinic operations. About $944,000 of that went to Bella Natural Women’s Health, more than a third of which came from Catholic Charities of Denver in 2016.
The Martin Family Foundation of Casper, Wyoming, was the biggest donor, giving $477,000 to Bella and Alternatives over three years. Community First Foundation of Arvada, which operates Colorado Gives Day, donated more than $471,000 to six of the pregnancy centers via donors who use that foundation as a conduit. The National Christian Charitable Foundation gave nearly $355,000 to 15 of the centers.
Gunnison area has no Planned Parenthood, four religious pregnancy centers
Abortion-rights advocates are concerned about what they see as an assault on abortion nationally. An Alabama law, now tied up in the court system, would ban most abortions. A handful of states, including Georgia and Ohio, passed measures this year outlawing abortion beyond six weeks of pregnancy — before many women would know they were pregnant.
In Colorado, voters could decide next year whether to ban abortion after 22 weeks, if supporters are able to collect enough signatures to make the ballot. For now, the decades-old battle is playing out in one town at a time — on church lawns dotted with pink and blue flags to represent aborted babies and on websites where religious-based pregnancy centers are accused of deception.
In Gunnison, Ava Godhardt is waging her own battle against the local pregnancy center, called Lighthouse. As a student at Western Colorado University, Godhardt noticed a poster for the pregnancy center tacked to a bathroom wall. It offered a phone number for students who thought they were pregnant.
Godhardt, an abortion-rights supporter who will graduate next spring with an anthropology degree, started asking questions about Lighthouse Pregnancy Center. She worried that college students in particular who were new to town would not realize the 5-year-old center was religious-based and go there thinking they would get “non-judgmental, unbiased, accurate information,” she said.
She set out to enlighten the town. “For a while it was them putting up posters and me taking them down,” Godhardt said. Then she helped NARAL hold a barbecue across the street from Lighthouse, handing out abortion-rights buttons and T-shirts. She dug into the Lighthouse’s website and posted its policies on a local word-of-mouth Facebook group last year, until she was blocked from the page.
“If these clinics want to exist and want to be pro-life, that’s fine, they just need to be upfront with it,” Godhardt said. “Their perfect client is one who doesn’t know any better.”
The Lighthouse Pregnancy Center executive director Sara Wood said in an email that the center is “very clear concerning our services and our advertising is always straightforward.” Lighthouse provides self-administered pregnancy tests, infant supplies, referrals for off-site ultrasounds and post-abortion counseling. Its website notes that it doesn’t offer birth control or referrals for abortions.
The center was created by a small group of Gunnison women who wanted to help college students and others with unexpected pregnancies, according to the website for Legacy Family Ministries, which set up the pregnancy center. It is affiliated with the national anti-abortion group CareNet, which does not refer single women for contraceptives and says that married women who want birth control “should be urged to seek counsel, along with their husbands, from their pastor or physician.”
Low-cost birth control is available at the Gunnison County health department. Gunnison has no Planned Parenthood — the closest one is in Salida. But there are faith-based pregnancy centers in Montrose, Salida, Buena Vista and Gunnison.
“They definitely have us cornered out here,” Godhardt said.