Illinois Democratic lawmakers want to crack down on ‘crisis pregnancy centers’
On a recent Monday afternoon, nurse practitioner Jamie Holocker answered the phone at Empower Life Center in Peoria. A caller asked if they provide abortion pills.
“We welcome you to come in for an appointment so you make the best decision for yourselves and you have all the options and what to expect before, during and after — but we don’t actually have the pills,” Holocker told the person.
Holocker said they often get calls asking for pills ending pregnancy, such as mifepristone.
And when pregnant patients come in considering abortion services, Holocker said this is what they are told: “Right now, we’re thinking about right now. I know this is where it’s hard to think outside of that box right now. But I challenge you to think of yourself in like three, four or five years down the road and looking back on this.”
Empower Life Center, founded in 2000 and run by the Peoria Rescue Ministries, is a crisis pregnancy center (CPC). Illinois is home to nearly 100 centers, usually nonprofit Christian-based facilities offering ultrasounds, pregnancy testing and STI medication.
But these centers do not offer abortion services, medication or contraceptives — nor do they refer patients for these services.
And some state Democratic lawmakers say many of these centers use deceptive tactics to steer patients away from abortion-related services.
State Rep. Terra Costa Howard, D-Glen Ellyn, and Sen. Celina Vilanueva, D-Chicago, introduced their own versions of legislation that would allow patients to sue if they believe a center deceived them. Specifically, if a center was found to have concealed or misrepresented facts with the intent to “to interfere with an individual seeking to gain entry or access to a provider of abortion or emergency contraceptive.” The bill would also allow a court to impose a penalty of up to $50,000 on a center. However, neither bills have reached the House or Senate floors for a full vote yet.
Megan Jeyifo says she often works with patients coming from CPCs. She is the executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, a nonprofit that connects individuals seeking abortion care with resources like travel and lodging accommodations. She recalled one mother from Wisconsin who was looking for an abortion clinic for her 15-year-old daughter, when they walked into a CPC instead.
“When her child was in the room, they showed her pictures of the ultrasound that she didn’t want to see. They told her information about the pregnancy that she didn’t want,” Jeyifo said. “They prayed over her, they got her phone number, her email address and they were harassing the family for weeks after this happened.”
Jeyifo said these bills are a good first step in holding the centers accountable.
“If Illinois truly wants to be the beacon for reproductive health care, we need all people who are passionate and invested in this issue to step up and do what they can to make sure that Illinois remains the safe space that it is right now,” Jeyifo said.
University of Georgia professor Andrea Swartzendruber has been following the legislation closely. She’s a public health professor specializing in reproductive health at the University of Georgia but is originally from Illinois.
She helped develop a national online map of where these centers are located. According to her research, there are nearly 100 crisis pregnancy centers in Illinois.
“We found in general high levels of inaccurate health information in particular about abortion and the risks of abortion [such as] a lot of disinformation categorizing abortion as very unsafe, risky,” Swartzendruber said.
She said some people surveyed truly valued pregnancy centers, like one patient who was given snacks and informational pamphlets. However, the patient believed the center would also provide prenatal care.
“She received no prenatal care services throughout the duration of her pregnancy,” Swartzendruber said. “In fact, when she went to deliver, she drove herself to the emergency room.”
Swartzendruber said many centers promote themselves on their websites as health clinics that offer the full range of reproductive services, while concealing their religious affiliations and anti-abortion ideologies.
She also said most facilities are not medically licensed with the state in which they operate. A spokesperson from the Illinois Department of Public Health confirmed pregnancy centers in general are not licensed with the department.
“Because they’re not regulated overall … there are just so many health risks that CPCs pose,” Swartzendruber said.
Currently, more than 2,300 people filed slips with the General Assembly in favor of one of the bills, and nearly 8,500 people against – among the filers in objection are numerous CPCs from all over the state. Last week thousands of anti-abortion advocates packed the streets outside the capitol for a rally to protest the two bills.
“It is an attempt to force pregnancy health centers to cooperate with abortions, to go against their freedom of speech and their freedom of religion,” said Anna Kinskey, executive director of weDignify, an anti-abortion student mentoring group based out of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “For the attorney general to persecute them and profit off of them. The thousands of people here are not going to let that stand.”
But this isn’t the first legal battle for CPCs.
In 2016, several Chicago-area CPCs filed a lawsuit over a new state law requiring facilities to refer patients for services they don’t provide themselves — in this case, abortion. They said the law violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled against the CPCs in 2020, requiring centers such as Empower Life Center to refer patients for abortion services if they ask.
“I don’t see [us doing] that,” Holocker said. “I know the information is readily available on the internet for anybody who’d want to look.”
Holocker said she and her staff are not worried if the bills seeking to crack down on CPCs pass. Between the Scripture quotes on the wall and the many Bible study classes offered, the center is upfront about its religious views and what services it doesn’t offer, Holocker said.
“We don’t want to deceive at all,” she said. “We want to be there for the whole person, regardless of where they are with their journey and where their thought processes are.”
Unless that journey includes abortion.
Mawa Iqbal covers Illinois state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow @mawa_iqbal.