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The contention of care: Inside Brunswick’s crisis pregnancy center

December 1, 2023

Emma Kilbride
WHAT IS CARE?: Care Net of Mid-Coast Maine's baby boutique sits stocked with donated clothing accessories. The organization, a crisis pregnancy center, has been criticized for using its resources to promote an anti-abortion agenda. Fifty-four percent of Maine colleges have crisis pregnancy centers within five miles.

Two links rise to the top of Google searches for “abortion near Bowdoin College.”

The first link directs to Planned Parenthood’s Topsham Health Center, located a mile from campus just across the Androscoggin River. The location offers a range of reproductive healthcare services, including medication abortions.

The second link directs to an organization called Care Net of Mid-Coast Maine (CNMM), located less than a mile from campus in downtown Brunswick. The organization refers to itself as a “pregnancy help center” and belongs to a group of non-profit, volunteer-run organizations often referred to as crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that offer free resources to pregnant individuals.

Offerings vary among CPCs, but many—including CNMM—offer pregnancy tests, limited ultrasound services and counseling from volunteers. CNMM also offers referrals for adoption and prenatal care, as well as parenting classes that earn participants credit for resources like baby clothes, toys and diapers.

What all CPCs have in common is that they don’t offer or refer for abortion services, and CNMM is no exception. Despite the fact that CNMM appears in Google searches for abortion services, Executive Director Mary Rose Pray says these services are a far cry from the organization’s institutional values.

“We are pro-life and anti-abortion,” Pray said. “We are dedicated to sharing resources with those who have pregnancy-related needs and providing them options constantly, because every woman that comes in here has to live with whatever decision she makes.”

Healthcare providers, scholars and abortion activists generally agree that the resources that CPCs offer do not give pregnant people the latitude to truly control their care. Rather, they see CPCs as barriers to reproductive care that put communities at risk.

The center of controversy

There are 11 CPCs in Maine, according to the Crisis Pregnancy Center Map. Nine of these—including CNMM—are affiliated with Care Net, a CPC parent organization and “pro abundant life ministry” that claims affiliation with thousands of CPCs across the country. Care Net’s institutional mission is explicitly pro-life and Christian centered.

“Founded in 1975, Care Net is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that empowers women and men considering abortion to choose life for their unborn children and find abundant life in Christ,” the website reads.

CPCs often rely on donor funds to operate. According to a ProPublica report using data from the IRS, CNMM, whose 501(c)3 designation is registered under the name Door To Life, generated approximately $148,000 in revenue in 2022.

According to Mareisa Weil, vice president for development and community engagement at reproductive healthcare provider Maine Family Planning (MFP), the services CPCs use their funding to provide are designed to steer pregnant people away from abortion care.

“[MFP has] no agenda other than making sure that the patient gets the care that they know they need for their own body and their own life circumstances,” Weil said. “Crisis pregnancy centers are driven by the objective of keeping people from getting abortions. That’s really their primary reason for existing.”

Lisa Margulies, vice president of public affairs for the Maine division of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said that CPCs pose as health care providers to propel their pro-life agenda.

“[CPCs] often advertise themselves as legitimate and provide free medical services to make people think they’re legitimate health care providers. They’re not legitimate health care providers in any way, shape or form,” Margulies said. “They’re not bound to the medical, legal or ethical standards of legitimate health care providers, which means they could actually pose a great danger to someone seeking health care.”

Volunteer counselors at CPCs are typically not licensed mental health care or medical professionals. According to Pray, CNMM volunteer counselors require no outside certification and are trained using materials purchased from the Care Net company.

Abortion rights advocates and health care providers also accuse CPCs of spreading misinformation about reproductive health to dissuade pregnant people from seeking abortions.

“There are numerous reports and first-person accounts showing that CPCs give people inaccurate, biased and even false information, typically in an attempt to shame or scare them out of having an abortion,” Margulies said. “They may use deceitful or misleading films or pictures or tell outright lies about the medical and emotional effects of abortion.”

According to Pray, all clients who tell a CNMM volunteer that they are considering an abortion are presented with a pamphlet entitled “Before You Decide.” One of the pamphlet’s claims is that having elective abortions is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer—a claim the American Cancer Society has declared unsubstantiated.

The American Academy of Obstetrics and Gynecology, a leading authority on reproductive healthcare, released an issue brief advising the public to avoid CPCs.

“By using deception, delay tactics and disinformation, CPC staff undermine the tenets of informed consent and patient autonomy and impede access to comprehensive, ethical care,” the brief reads.

CPCs remain in high numbers across the United States, outnumbering abortion clinics in low-access states by as much as 15 to 1, according to the National Institute of Health. Weil says that CPCs tend to appear both in economically disadvantaged communities and in close proximity to abortion clinics. However, another common location for CPCs is emerging: the college town.

A campus connection

Among Maine colleges, Bowdoin’s proximity to a CPC is not an anomaly. Data gathered from the Crisis Pregnancy Center Map reveals that 54 percent of Maine colleges, including their satellite campuses, have a CPC within a five-mile radius. Only two of the 11 CPCs in Maine are not situated within five miles of a college campus.

While formal research on links between college campuses and CPCs is lacking, Weil theorizes that this emerging trend is not a coincidence.

“This is a little bit anecdotal, but I think [leaders of CPCs] think of college students as young, likely to be sexually active and more impressionable, perhaps, than older adults—so less certain of their decisions, their life direction,’” Weil said. “They may view that population as more susceptible to influence.”

NESCAC schools also indicate a relationship between CPCs and college campuses. Seven out of 11, or 64 percent, of NESCAC institutions have a CPC within a five-mile radius.

The connection between CPCs and college towns is one that students have begun probing.

After the CPC near her college tabled at a school activities fair, Middlebury graduate Elissa Asch and other student activists across the NESAC formed the NESCAC Coalition to Ban Crisis Pregnancy Centers. The movement to ban CPCs on all NESCAC campuses generated a petition with over 700 signatures from students across all the institutions, including Bowdoin.

For Asch, the value of the campaign was in raising consciousness.

“Most people in the United States don’t know what CPCs are, even though they far outnumber abortion clinics,” Asch said. “By the end, we probably informed hundreds of people—hundreds of students, hundreds of alumni, hundreds of people at other schools—about what CPCs are.”

Last year, Bowdoin students formed the Bowdoin Reproductive Justice Coalition (BRJC) and began working with local activists and Health Services to raise awareness of CPCs and help students access resources from true healthcare facilities.

“By educating the Bowdoin community about CPCs … we are trying to combat their reliance on lack of knowledge about their efforts, and their ability to leverage that lack of information against people who are looking for help,” lead BRJC organizer Kaitlin Weiss ’25 wrote in an email to the Orient.

Director of Student Activities Nate Hintze said he is not aware of any College rules prohibiting CPCs from tabling or distributing information on campus. According to Director of Health Services Christine Mahoney, the College’s health center does not, nor has it ever, referred students to CNMM or supplied students with its materials.

A bigger movement

Student activists at schools like Middlebury and Bowdoin represent only a small fraction of those organizing against CPCs.

In Maine, a leading presence in the fight to destabilize CPCs is Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights (GRR), an activist group advocating for abortion rights. The group visited the College last year to lead a teach-in on CPCs and reproductive justice in collaboration with BRJC.

“[CPCs] lie, and they have an agenda, and their agenda is through the lens of very conservative Christian ideology,” GRR Education Coordinator Elayne Richard said. “Their goal is to keep people from having abortions, and they’ve gotten slicker and slicker.”

Initially, GRR concentrated its efforts on confronting CPCs through legislation, but has found education to be a more practical approach to affecting real change.

“Legislation is hard—it’s sticky. And anti-abortion people are always looking for a legal way to counter,” Richard said. “We would rather educate people and say, ‘This is what [CPCs] do and why it’s wrong, and here: This is where you can get what you need.’”

There have still been legislative efforts to place guardrails on CPC operations in Maine. Earlier this year, Rep. Lori Gramlich (D – Old Orchard Beach) sponsored L.D. 1137, a bill that would hold CPCs accountable for false or misleading advertising about the services they offer. The bill was declared “dead” in May.

For now, CPCs remain on solid ground—here in Brunswick, across the state and throughout the country. At Bowdoin, student activists continue confronting them by sharing knowledge with the College community.

“Being in college and pregnant could put someone in an extremely vulnerable position, and I sincerely hope that [students] know the resources available to them at Health Services,” Weiss wrote.


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