Patricia Clinton was walking up East 149th Street in the South Bronx one afternoon last fall, ruminating over her decision to end an unexpected pregnancy. She was five weeks along, already a single parent to two children, and her finances were unstable. She wasn’t sure if the father of her unborn child would remain in the picture and didn’t think she could handle feeding a third mouth on her own.
Her mind heavy, she looked up and saw, across the street, in big signage on the second-floor window of a building: “EMC Pregnancy Center” and “Free Ultrasound.” A poster showed a woman with her hand on her forehead with a pained expression, as though she, too, were making a tough decision.
Ms. Clinton, now 29, decided to step inside and get some guidance. As she walked up the stairs, past a tattoo parlor and a shop selling clothing for exotic dancers, she missed a sign that read “Free Abortion Alternatives.”
Unbeknown to her, the mission of this organization, known as a crisis pregnancy center, was to dissuade women like Ms. Clinton from getting abortions.
This time, the mission was successful: By the time Ms. Clinton had walked out of the center an hour later, she had decided to keep the baby. “I thought, maybe it was for a reason that I got pregnant,” she recalled in an interview. “I actually might just love it. That’s what I thought.”
From the outside, crisis pregnancy centers look similar to medical facilities, with signs advertising ultrasound sessions and using words like “pregnancy test” or “Medicaid,” and with employees going in and out who often wear scrubs. But they usually do not employ licensed doctors or clinicians. Workers are able to operate an ultrasound, which does not require medical certification.
Despite the city’s reputation as a bastion of abortion rights, crisis pregnancy centers have existed in New York for years.
On Friday, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending legal abortion in about half of the states. As New York State, which has some of the nation’s most rigorous reproductive health protections, prepares for a possible surge of out-of-state abortion patients, crisis pregnancy centers will continue to operate as usual, if not ramp up their services, anti-abortion campaigners say.
“Pregnancy resource centers act as good Samaritans under God’s law,” said former Representative Gordon Klingenschmitt, Republican of Colorado, an evangelical activist.
Mr. Klingenschmitt recently visited New York City from Colorado Springs to participate in a protest against new regulation that would restrict the centers, which, he said, are meant to “care for our neighbors in distress.”
The centers are designed to draw in pregnant women considering abortion, but their primary purpose is to counsel them against ending their pregnancies, abortion rights advocates say.
Pregnant women have been told that abortions can cause cancer and sterility, and other claims that are medically unproven, said Elizabeth Estrada of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.
She added that expectant mothers are promised help, like in finding affordable housing, and are offered material resources like diapers. Often this aid will come through, but ultimately, women are left to fend for themselves once they give birth, Ms. Estrada said.
The confusion created by the centers about what exactly they do concerns some local politicians like Marjorie Velazquez, a City Council member.
“If you are proclaiming that you are there for health care and you’re not providing the health care, then you’re defrauding a consumer, a patient,” said Ms. Velazquez, who represents the Bronx and who chairs the New York City consumer protection committee. “In the past there has been a safety because it is New York City and we’re a largely Democratic city. But still, the urgency is here and it’s now.”
Crisis pregnancy centers outnumber abortion clinics in New York, said Aviva Zadoff, the director of advocacy at the National Council of Jewish Women New York, who leads Pro-Truth, a reproductive rights nonprofit that maintains a database on the centers.
There are at least 24 anti-abortion centers across the city, compared with 20 abortion clinics; across the state there are 120 anti-abortion centers compared with 74 abortion clinics, according to the Pro-Truth database.
And just as abortion clinics have been attacked over the years, the violence sometimes goes in the other direction, too. This month an anti-abortion center in Buffalo was firebombed overnight; its windows were blown out and two firefighters were injured.
In New York City, the number of crisis pregnancy centers is especially high in the Bronx, where there are more Catholics than in other boroughs and the influence of the church remains strong, especially among Latinos.
Anti-abortion groups are also trying to make inroads in newer immigrant communities, like Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which has a large Chinese population.
Online, it’s also easy to confuse crisis pregnancy centers with medically certified abortion clinics. A recent report found that in states with trigger laws (meaning these states severely restricted or banned abortion once Roe v. Wade was overturned), Google searches for abortion services often resulted in crisis pregnancy centers instead. In New York City, where abortion is still fully legal, a website for a Manhattan-based center, Avail, welcomes visitors by saying “You don’t have to face your pregnancy or abortion alone.”
Josh McGrath, an Avail employee, described the center’s mission in an email as “supporting and caring for our clients.” He wrote, “We focus our resources, time and energy on serving women and their families rather than labeling ourselves, choosing sides or defending ourselves from libel,” alluding to claims by abortion rights activists that they misrepresent the services they provide.
Lawmakers in Albany, however, are charging ahead in an attempt to rein in crisis pregnancy centers. They recently passed legislation that would authorize officials from the New York State Department of Health to investigate the centers. Until now, centers in the city were under the purview of the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, which requires crisis pregnancy centers to advertise clearly that they are not health care clinics. But the rules aren’t always enforced.
Other new laws, signed this month by Gov. Kathy Hochul, expand legal protections for people seeking and performing abortions in New York. They will forbid both abortion providers and out-of-state residents seeking abortions in the state from being extradited to other states where the procedure is banned or restricted. Law enforcement will be prohibited from assisting with out-of-state investigations into abortions.
Anti-abortion groups are working just as hard.
Heartbeat International, a leading anti-abortion organization, said that New York City had fewer crisis pregnancy centers per capita than the national average and had room to accommodate more of them.
“We are anticipating an expansion of efforts to reach and serve the women who are traveling into New York and New York City and may be experiencing doubt about whether abortion is the answer they want,” the group said in a statement. Discussions about increasing funding for local pregnancy centers are underway, the statement said.
Michele Sterlace-Accorsi, a spokeswoman for Feminists Choosing Life of New York, said her group was increasing its efforts to push for bills in the state that would require abortion providers to offer patients additional information about their pregnancies or alternatives to ending them, similar to what other states have enacted.
In Michigan, for example, doctors must ask pregnant women whether they were coerced into deciding to have an abortion, and in Ohio, doctors must share a fetal development guide with their patients at least 24 hours before an abortion.
Such bills will most likely be supported by some New York politicians.
“A medical environment that advises patients of all of the opportunities that they have, to me, that is very important,” said Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon, a Democrat representing the Utica area. “At a time when someone is making a very difficult decision and one that is something that they would reflect on as time goes on in life, it’s important to ensure that all information is provided.”
Though most New York legislators tend to support access to legal abortions, a number of them, including Democrats, voted against the 2019 Reproductive Health Act, which expanded abortion rights in the state. Several New York City Council members, including at least one Democrat, have donated to a crisis pregnancy center in Queens.
“People think that there’s no, like, real need to advance or end stigma here,” said Ms. Estrada, the reproductive rights activist, referring to pockets in the city, like the Bronx, where there is some cultural and religious shame around abortion. “But that’s not true, especially when we’re seeing so many crisis pregnancy centers proliferating.”
Many crisis pregnancy centers are next to abortion clinics because the chances of women confusing one for the other is greater, Ms. Estrada said.
This is what happened to Ms. Clinton last fall in the Bronx, when she was trying to decide about her pregnancy. As she walked and thought, she failed to notice the Planned Parenthood, with its subdued blue signage, right across the street from the more colorful Expectant Mother Care pregnancy center. “No, I didn’t recognize it at all,” said Ms. Clinton, who added that she was unaware a Planned Parenthood was in the neighborhood.
Mother Care was founded by Christopher Slattery, who has led the largest network of pregnancy centers in New York City for four decades.
“If we get people that are thinking we’re Planned Parenthood, we get them to come in,” he said. “It has worked marvelously,” he continued. “We’ve rescued thousands of mothers.”
At the height of his activism in the 1980s, Mr. Slattery, now 67 and retired from an advertising career, operated 20 pregnancy centers in New York City. Now, he oversees only eight, because of financial challenges. Over the years, a slew of lawsuits and fines have been leveled against him, most prominently by a succession of attorneys general of New York, including the current one, Letitia James.
This month Mr. Slattery flew to Madrid to recruit a group of young Spaniards to work with him for the summer in the Bronx. He said he gives away $3 million worth of baby products a year, all from private and corporate donations. (He declined to say which companies were donors.)
None of those supplies, however, have so far reached Ms. Clinton, who said Mother Care had promised her material support when she visited last fall. “They would say they know somebody that could probably refer me somewhere, that could help me financially, diapers and stuff like that,” she said. “But I never received any phone call from anybody.”
Mr. Slattery said while the center does not offer direct financial aid, it “helps clients find state or city financial benefits.” He added that Ms. Clinton “was always welcome to request supplies” and that Expectant Mother Care gives out wipes and diapers to an average of 50 families a week.
With about six weeks left until her due date, Ms. Clinton said she might have made a different decision last fall if she had known about the baby formula shortages to come, and how inflation would increase prices for essentials, from diapers to groceries.
These days, she is worried about buying milk and cereal for her children and finding a job that pays more than child care costs, she said. She is both anxious and hopeful, and her children are excited about getting a new sibling.
“My daughter, she rubs my stomach all day, and says, ‘Baby, baby, my baby,’” she said. Ms. Clinton is still deciding on a name, but took a fancy to “Asani,” which she heard in a movie. It is Swahili, and means “rebellious.”
“Now I’m thinking, how am I able to help myself?”