Close proximity of 2 organizations, on opposing ends of abortion debate, can cause confusion
In an office at Southern Tier Women’s Health Services, executive director Susan Seibold Simpson leafs through a stack of documents sitting in her lap.
They are anonymous forms, from patients who had scheduled appointments at Women’s Health Services, which is an abortion and reproductive health clinic. Instead, the patients found themselves in a building across the parking lot, where many say they were pushed to continue their pregnancies.
Women’s Health Services has been around since the 1980s. It’s a fairly nondescript building in a parking lot in Vestal. It has a mural of a yellow flower by its door.
About 100 feet away is Women’s Life Services. As a pregnancy center, they’re opposed to abortion and instead try to provide alternatives to the procedure. They have a butterfly on their sign.
The similarity of the names, the signage, and how close they are to each other, can cause confusion. Now, staff at the abortion clinic make sure to text people if they’re late to their appointments, just in case they end up in the wrong building.
“Or if they call us, we just go stand out front and we wave, because we can see them over there. So we just wave and say come on over here,” Seibold Simpson said.
Some patients reported in the forms that they were not told that the abortion clinic, where they had scheduled an appointment, was just across the parking lot. Most said they felt pressured to continue their pregnancies and were told that they would regret it if they had abortions. Several said staff at the pregnancy center told them that abortion was a sin, or that they would go to hell if they terminated their pregnancies.
“We've had patients call us saying they were so demoralized that they just went home, because they were so overwhelmed by the experience,” Seibold Simpson said. “But there are others that come here and are rightfully very angry, and just want to continue to move forward with us.”
"They've been with us from the very beginning"
Peg Johnston co-owns the abortion clinic. She said she remembers when pro-life protesters began demonstrating outside the clinic back in the 1980s.
"They blockaded our clinic a couple of times, where they would bring cars in or they would just sit. And sometimes they would tie themselves to each other or chain themselves to the door," Johnston said. "They used to glue our locks shut, so we got good at dissembling locks."
Johnston said the pregnancy centers are nothing new. Along with pro-life demonstrators, they’ve been following the abortion clinic in one iteration or another.
“They've been with us from the very beginning, when we were in the Binghamton Plaza, they were just up the street on Chenango. Then when we came to, up by Dunkin' Donuts, they had a place right across the street. And then we came here, and they're right over there, right across the parking lot,” Johnston said.
There are more crisis pregnancy centers in New York than there are abortion clinics.
Pregnancy centers often offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. Supporters of the centers say they connect patients with resources, local social services and material support, like diapers or formula.
But abortion advocates argue the centers misrepresent themselves as medical clinics, and provide misleading and inaccurate information to patients, in the attempt to convince them to continue their pregnancies.
Gary Leber is the executive director of Women’s Life Services, the pregnancy center. He said that they make it clear to patients that they are not a medical clinic.
Leber said some patients do end up at the center thinking that it’s the abortion clinic, but in an email, he said “there are no accidents with God.” Leber said he sees it as an opportunity for pregnant women to “slow down, stop, talk and hear the facts and risks about abortion, adoption and parenting.” He argued that “like many other things, all three have risks.”
Leber pointed out that Women’s Life Services connects people with local resources and social services. The center has a room with baby clothing and diapers. Leber said they counsel women about all of their options, and that their counselors don’t pressure or judge.
“Different organizations have free services to help women make a healthy decision about their child. But when it comes to abortion, it’s easy to just have that word translated in the public to not really mean that a child is losing its life…and I think that’s a huge distinction between what people see in the two sides of this argument,” Leber said.
"What types of services do they actually provide?"
New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation over the summer that directs the state commissioner of health to study the impact of crisis pregnancy centers.
Alice Cartwright is a doctoral candidate in Maternal and Child Health at the University of North Carolina. She co-authored a study using Google ads to poll people who searched for abortion care.
The researchers asked people if they were pregnant and if they had gone to a crisis pregnancy center, or CPC. Then they checked back in with them four weeks later.
“Compared to people who had not visited a CPC, people who said that they visited a CPC were both more likely to still be trying to get an abortion, and more likely to be planning to continue the pregnancy versus having had an abortion,” Cartwright said.
The study found that people who had been to a pregnancy center were more likely to still be pregnant four weeks later. But Cartwright said that could be for a number of reasons.
Some patients weren’t considering an abortion in the first place and went to the pregnancy centers for diapers, or baby clothes, or a connection to housing services.
The pregnancy centers could be scaring patients away from seeking abortion, or delaying them so that it’s harder for them to access an abortion. Or it could simply be harder to access an abortion clinic than a pregnancy center, depending on where a person lives.
Ultimately, Cartwright said people end or continue their pregnancies for all sorts of personal, individual reasons. She said that’s one of the challenges when it comes to looking at the impact of pregnancy centers,but that there’s still a lot for states like New York to study.
“What types of services do they actually provide? And who are the types of people who are visiting them?" Cartwright said. "And then what are they actually seeking from those places?
Cartwright said that could also illuminate gaps in the public health and reproductive care system when it comes to abortion access.
“I think the takeaway for all of us is that people need support to do what they want to do with their pregnancy,” Cartwright said.