This is not the column I planned to write. Ignited by the September 16 Republican primary debate, my discarded column is full of quips about Donald Trump’s misogynistic, conservative demonization of Planned Parenthood. That column, maturely titled “scary ass republicans,” will remain tucked away in an interior file in my computer. It did not raise the quality of discourse about this issue—which, by the way, is reproduction.

What drew my attention to this subject in particular was Jeb Bush’s boast that not only had he directed funding away from Planned Parenthood, but that he had directed it toward crisis pregnancy centers.

The first crisis pregnancy center I was aware of was CareNet of Midcoast Maine. I first noticed it when it was located on Union Street and I made frequent morning-after treks home from Red Brick House (CareNet is now located at 7 Cumberland Street).

“Is this a clinic?” I wondered. “I guess it’s a clinic, it looks like a clinic.”

This is what they wanted me to think, and it is not true.

In short, crisis pregnancy centers—or the other CPC, as I like to call them—are non-profit ministries designed to mimic sexual health clinics. According to a report issued by the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) Pro-Choice America, CareNet is one of the largest crisis pregnancy center networks in the United States. CareNet of Midcoast Maine is our local branch.

I bopped around CareNet’s website on Monday night. There are the expected tabs—symptoms, services, abortion, contact, give—but the symptoms described are only for pregnancy, not for STIs, and the services offered are pregnancy testing, and counseling, not contraception. I compared the layout with Planned Parenthood’s website. Both feature clear-skinned models half smiling in stock photos and quick appointment buttons. It was an obvious imitation.  

One of the services crisis pregnancy centers offer is options counseling for people coping with unplanned pregnancies. However, there is one option conspicuously not on the table: abortion. Though it is listed as a “topic” of discussion, their position is unilateral. The homepage of the national CareNet website recruits volunteers with this message:

“Stand Up. Speak Out. Be heard! You can defend unborn children in jeopardy by reaching parents considering abortion today with a message of truth and hope through Pregnancy Decision Line and our network of over 1,100 affiliated pregnancy centers.”

In the top right corner there is a ticker counting “lives saved,” or women who came to CareNet considering abortion and, because of their counseling and ministry, chose to continue with the pregnancy. 

Tuesday morning, I decided to pay CareNet a visit in person, and something happened that I wasn’t prepared for: they were so incredibly nice.

I was greeted by three women, forties to sixties I’d guess, sitting in the waiting room chatting. They smiled at me and asked if I was there for a test.

“No,” I said, “I’m just here to ask a few questions about what kinds of services you offer.”

They were enthusiastic and eager to tell me about their operation, not guarded or suspicious. They offer free hormonal pregnancy tests, the kind you pee on and can buy at Rite Aid. “Nothing fancy.”

They also offer a service I didn’t know about: free parenting classes. By taking them you earn “mommy dollars” which can be spent at the CareNet baby boutique. They were particularly proud of the boutique—it’s a small room filled with shiny toys, soft blankets and sturdy baby clothes.

My tour guide, a warm and friendly church lady, told me their unofficial motto, “We give everyone who comes through this door a cold glass of water,” (metaphorical water, though I’m sure they’d give you real water too) “we know we can’t solve all the problems, but we’re trying to do like Jesus did, to meet people where they are and help where we can.”

She meant it, undoubtedly. She radiated sincerity and goodwill. And though I think she was drawn there to help, I am not pardoning crisis pregnancy centers. I left CareNet feeling the way I do about missionary work: there are good people on the ground offering genuine help, but with constricting ideological strings attached. It is charity, but it is also a means of control.

It is no secret that the United States has negligible systemic support for parents—there is no paid maternity leave, much less family or parental leave; no universal childcare, much less parenting classes or subsidized baby supplies. We are pitifully behind the rest of the developed world in this area, and much of the developing world. The United States’ anti-maternalism has been the subject of academic feminist research for decades. See, for example, the work of Sonya Michel, Theda Skocpol, and Seth Koven. 

This is why CareNet works. The neoliberal state does not support reproduction; it leaves that to the market. There is a gap in parental services, one that crisis pregnancy centers are exploiting.

Crisis pregnancy centers do provide real services, but it is only a tactic, not the goal. It is well researched and thoroughly documented that crisis pregnancy centers are an arm of the anti-choice movement whose goal is to revoke the right to abortion access. This is not a secret, on the national CareNet home page, the slide after “Speak up. Speak out,” asks viewers to, “join our fight to end abortion.”

NARAL Pro-Choice America released a report on the topic at the beginning of this year. It contends that the threat of crisis pregnancy centers is not just that they are against abortion—we have free speech protection—but that they “pose as comprehensive health-care clinics,” to “restrict, control, and manipulate the information women facing unplanned pregnancies receive.”

If there were widely accessible parenting classes or subsidized baby supplies, would CareNet be able to draw people in? I doubt it.

As Katha Pollitt noted in her talk last Thursday, abortion should be safe, legal and accessible. But it is not the only thing. Parental support should be accessible, baby supplies should be accessible, childcare should be accessible. A strong state with strong maternal support services would pull the rug out from underneath crisis pregnancy centers. Real help with pregnancy does not come in a well-intentioned box tied with an ideological bow.