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Inside some of these crisis pregnancy centres, including those in Costa Rica and Mexico, staff offered reporters ultrasounds as part of ‘counselling’ sessions focused on dissuading them from accessing abortions.

The South African department of health’s deputy director general Yogam Pillay said he would be particularly concerned about this aspect of these centres’ activities if they took place in South Africa, where “even nurses cannot do ultrasounds unless they have been specifically trained”.

This also appears to be in breach of Heartbeat’s own guidance on ultrasounds, which says that a centre that wants to offer these services must “become a medical clinic”, with a licensed medical director, insurance and a trained technician.

Emily Baile at the Expose Fake Clinics campaign in the US said that openDemocracy’s findings show how US groups have been “exporting” many of the “same lies about pregnancy and abortion that they have honed here at home”.

“Under the current administration in the US, these types of centres are becoming emboldened,” added Amy Bryant, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of North Carolina’s medical school.

Bryant said that openDemocracy’s investigation has documented some “tactics I have not come across in the US, such as telling women that you need a partner’s permission”. But she added that their intent seems to be the same: “Deceive pregnant women who are seeking abortions by scaring them with fraudulent claims.”  

“A rule of law issue”

In total, openDemocracy undercover reporters contacted and received advice from more than thirty ‘crisis centres’ in eighteen countries, in person or via their telephone hotlines. They were given misleading or manipulative counselling in most cases.

In Canada, most of Heartbeat’s affiliates explictly state on their websites that they do not refer for abortion services or provide professional counselling, although only about 40% put this on their front page. In most countries, these centres did not make their anti-abortion positions clear on the websites we reviewed.

“This investigation raises major concerns about these extremist groups who target women seeking healthcare,” said Ana Maria Bejar, advocacy director at the International Planned Parenthood Federation. She called for laws and information campaigns to counter groups spreading “harmful myths and bullying women”.

In Argentina, parliamentarian Mónica Macha said national authorities should investigate whether centres are acting illegally and added: “We need to discuss the legitimacy of these organisations that seek to evangelise on unwanted motherhood.

“These activities don’t empower anyone, don’t inform, don’t give counsel… they just seek to scare and create panic to push [women] into decisions based on false information and ideological traps. The goal is clear: prevent women’s autonomy.”

“This is a rule of law issue,” said Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. “Every politician, whether or not they agree with a women’s right to abortion, should be very concerned that their country’s laws are being circumvented through disinformation, emotional manipulation and outright deceit.”


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