Over the last year, NARAL Pro-Choice California, a reproductive rights advocacy group, sent undercover investigators to so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" (CPCs) throughout the state. Workers at these centers — which critics argue are ideologically conservative organizations dedicated to stopping abortions — repeatedly gave the NARAL investigators (who were women claiming to be pregnant) wildly inaccurate information, the group reported.
Abortions, some staff said, are linked to increased risks of breast cancer, infertility, and suicide. Birth control, they told the women, causes "medical abortions" and has dangerous side effects. One worker allegedly pressured a NARAL investigator to have an ultrasound and subsequently told her she was looking at "her baby." In reality, the staffer was pointing to the woman's contraception — her intrauterine device (IUD).
There's no shortage of these laughably absurd anecdotes, and NARAL is now hoping to shed light on the manipulative tactics and misinformation of crisis pregnancy centers through an unconventional advocacy event this week in Oakland: a comedy show.
"You almost don't have to write the jokes — they write themselves," said Rebecca Griffin, NARAL's assistant director for California programs. "It's ripe for mockery. ... They are giving patently incorrect information to women seeking actual medical care."
On April 16 at the New Parkway (474 24th St., Oakland), four comedians will speak out about crisis pregnancy centers as part of a comedy event NARAL is organizing called Stand Up for Choice. The show will feature Kurt Braunohler, a Los Angeles-based comedian and the event's headliner; Nato Green, a San Francisco-based comic and San Francisco Examiner columnist; Aparna Nancherla, a New York-based comic and former writer for W. Kamau Bell's show Totally Biased; and Eliza Skinner, an LA-based comic and Funny or Die writer. Their stand-up routines will touch on CPCs and other topics.
"It's a big experiment," said Green, who has partnered with NARAL in the past. He said he was particularly drawn to pro-choice advocacy after repeatedly walking by the Planned Parenthood protesters in San Francisco, who often bring graphic posters designed to discourage and intimidate women seeking abortions. "It's horrible. They are terrifying our children."
For its recent investigation, NARAL visited 45 of the more than 160 crisis pregnancy centers in California to get a closer insight into the questionable free counseling the clinics offer. Across the state, including at five centers in Alameda County, the undercover investigators, regardless of the circumstances they presented, all faced significant pressure from workers not to get abortions. A majority of the centers — some licensed as community clinics by the state, others unlicensed — referred to fetuses as "babies" and told the women they were "already a mother," NARAL reported.
The centers — which have sponsored billboards with statements like, "Pregnant? Scared? Need Help? Call us..." — also emphasized abstinence as the sole pregnancy prevention option, according to the investigation. When women reported serious medical needs, such as severe headaches and bleeding, the centers often did not tell them to see a doctor, and when one investigator presented herself as a domestic violence victim, the clinic staff did not ask if she had a safe place to stay, NARAL wrote. Instead, the focus was always on having the baby.
The messages of the centers are also often incredibly condescending and shaming, said Griffin, noting that crisis pregnancy center staff at a recent conference reportedly said their job is to protect women from abortion just as "an adult tells a child not to touch a hot stove."
Green said that, while "the topic is serious and depressing," there are many smart and genuinely funny ways to joke about the anti-abortion centers. In a recent Twitter campaign that NARAL and a group of comedians coordinated, for example, activists and performers posted satirical pregnancy center tips — with the hashtag #CPCAdvice — such as: "Abortion makes you fat," "If you take birth control your father will become your brother," and "Abortions cost ninety million dollars. Do you have ninety million dollars?"
In addition to the New Parkway comedy night, NARAL plans to produce a video with the comedians to help reach a wider audience, Griffin said. "We recognize that comedy can be used in really powerful ways," she said. The event will be a "call-to-action to push this message out," she said, adding, "Once people find out, they are so horrified they start telling other people."