Crisis pregnancy centres outnumber abortion care clinics on Vancouver Island

Nanaimo abortion provider says centres confuse, misinform patients

Note: This article has been updated to reflect hospital-run options for abortion care in the Comox Valley and Campbell River.

On June 24, 2022, The House of Grace pregnancy centre opened its doors in central Duncan. Within days, a group of concerned citizens mobilized to publicly raise concerns about the new organization and other crisis pregnancy centres like it.

Unlike a women’s clinic or other medical clinic providing reproductive health care, crisis pregnancy centres are nonmedical organizations that offer counselling and support to pregnant people. They typically operate from a religiously informed view that life begins at conception and that preventing abortions is morally good.

While the services offered may be helpful for many pregnant people, reproductive rights advocates and sexual health experts warn that these centres often cause harm, particularly for people seeking information about or access to abortions. 

Related story: Abortion rights advocates raise concerns over new faith-based pregnancy centre in North Cowichan

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“They promote themselves as a safe, educational place [but] it’s quite the opposite,” says Kassidy Delcaro, a nurse and certified sexual health educator who works at Women’s Vita Medical Clinic in Nanaimo. 

Like in many regions across Canada, religious crisis pregnancy centres outnumber dedicated abortion providers and sexual health centres on Vancouver Island.

And they can be easier to find and quicker to access, Delcaro says.

“I have patients who find out that they’re pregnant [and] panic-call everybody when they google pregnancy care in their cities,” she says. “The crisis pregnancy centres show up first.”

It’s often faster to get an appointment at a crisis pregnancy centre than at a medical clinic, Delcaro adds. The result is that many people end up at a crisis pregnancy centre before they speak with a medical professional.

For patients that come to Women’s Vita after speaking to a crisis pregnancy counsellor, those visits often contribute to delays, confusion and distrust. “They’re very cautious and nervous about talking,” Delcaro says.

“It is tough to gain the trust and confidence of a patient as a health-care provider, and on top of it to have somebody who’s [been] given false information,” she says.

Crisis pregnancy centres known to spread misinformation

A 2016 review of Canadian crisis pregnancy centre websites conducted by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) found that many organizations had published medically unsubstantiated claims about abortion. 

According to the review, five per cent of the websites referenced an unproven claim that there is a link between receiving an abortion and the risk of getting breast cancer. Nine per cent of them mentioned medical risks of abortions that ARCC-CDAD say “were exaggerated or not scientifically proven.”

Nearly half of Canadian crisis pregnancy centre websites claimed the existence of “Post-abortion Syndrome” — negative psychological consequences of abortion — which is not a medically recognized condition and has been countered by social and scientific studies

In fact, research has found that while having an abortion is not linked to mental health issues, restricting abortion access is.

The websites of crisis pregnancy centres may not give a complete picture of what staff actually communicate to clients in person. A 2010 investigation conducted by the Toronto Star found that staff at crisis pregnancy centres in the region “were giving out verbal and written information about the physical and psychological risks of terminating a pregnancy … that either lacked context or has been dismissed by medical experts.” 

A similar investigation conducted by CTV Vancouver in 2012 showed staff used the same tactics on a reporter posing as a pregnant client.

“If you are thinking about abortion, or want an abortion, this is not the place to go,” ARCC executive director Joyce Arthur told reporter David Minkow in a July interview.

In an interview with The Discourse, House of Grace executive director Corina Finlay said the centre respects clients’ choices and gives them medically accurate information.

“Our appointments are client-led, so we’re not going to tell her to parent, nor are we going to tell her to adopt, nor would we tell her to abort because it’s her choice,” Finlay said.

Abortion discouraged internally, online

House of Grace, the new centre in Duncan, is affiliated with Pregnancy Care Canada (PCC), a national organization dedicated to establishing and supporting crisis pregnancy centres. The Victoria Pregnancy Centre and Crossroads Crisis Pregnancy Centre in Nanaimo are also in the PCC network.

Internal PCC documents provided to The Discourse outline the requirements for prospective member organizations and staff, including rules surrounding interactions with clients as well as the religious and moral doctrines staff must follow.

The collection of documents, titled “Core Documents: September 2021 revision” includes statements and policies that all affiliate centre employees and volunteers must agree to. 

According to the document, PCC’s mission as a “Christ-centred national organization” is to “[uphold] life by equipping pregnancy care centres and local communities with resources, education, and support to compassionately serve those challenged by an unexpected pregnancy.”

“The primary focus for PCC-affiliated pregnancy care centres is to reach and serve the abortion vulnerable,” reads a statement of principle in the document. Another statement adds that centres “are committed to assisting individuals to carry [their pregnancy] to term.”

However, the documents also state that PCC-affiliated staff “will not intimidate or judge a woman who chooses to pursue an abortion, and … will treat her with dignity, compassion, and respect.”

A training requirement for PCC-affiliated centre staff and volunteer support workers, outlined in the document, is to complete lessons — these include Biblical Basis for the Sanctity of Human Life, Pregnancy and Fetal Development, Abortion Techniques, Risks, and Consequences, Alternatives to Abortion: Adoption and Parenting, Understanding the Post Abortion Client and Role of the Gospel.

Another crisis pregnancy centre on Vancouver Island, Birthright Victoria, is an affiliate of Birthright International. Birthright Victoria’s website mentions abortion only once, on a page titled “Pregnancy options,” while Birthright International’s main website does not appear to mention it. 

The Birthright Victoria site tells visitors that “abortion may seem like the simplest way out of an unintended pregnancy, but there are no easy answers.”

“Maybe you don’t want to have an abortion but feel it is your only choice,” the web page states. “You may feel you have no choice — but you do. Birthright can explore the reasons you’re considering abortion with you and possibly offer alternative pregnancy options.”

In 2021 the federal Liberal Party promised to end charity status for crisis pregnancy centres “that provide dishonest counseling to women about their rights and about the options available to them at all stages of the pregnancy.” 

The Tyee reports the government hasn’t followed through on this promise, and hasn’t indicated how it would determine which groups may lose charitable status.

Conservative members of parliament have presented numerous petitions urging the government not to revoke charitable status from crisis pregnancy centres, which they say “save countless lives every year.” 

Revoking that status “will result in an explosion in the number of brutal abortions committed in Canada each year, slaughtering thousands of innocent babies,” the petitions allege.

Abortion care clinics on Vancouver Island outnumbered

According to research conducted by The Discourse, there are five crisis pregnancy centres currently operating on Vancouver Island — two in Victoria and one each in Duncan, Nanaimo and Comox. 

All five centres are faith-based, have similar websites and offer similar services to clients, such as pregnancy testing, volunteer counselling and support for new parents. 

In contrast, there are just four standalone clinics on Vancouver Island that advertise pro-choice support for pregnancy decisions — two in Victoria and two in Nanaimo.

The Vancouver Island Women’s Clinic in Victoria and the Women’s Vita Medical Clinic are both medical clinics offering reproductive health counselling and care. This includes access to abortion.

The Island Sexual Health Society in Victoria and the Options For Sexual Health clinic in Nanaimo both offer pro-choice counselling on pregnancy options and referrals for further care and support, including referrals for abortion. 

Two embedded clinics are also run within the Comox Valley Hospital and the Campbell River Hospital and can assist with abortion care up until the twelfth week of pregnancy, after which point patients are referred to the Victoria clinic. Specific information about contacting those clinics and getting referrals is available online.

Pro-choice, medically-informed counselling and information about accessing abortions in B.C. is also available by calling BC Women’s Hospital’s Pregnancy Options Service at 1-888-875-3163 or Options For Sexual Health’s Sex Sense line at 1-800-739-7367 (1-800-SEX-SENSE). 

Doctors and nurse practitioners in B.C. can offer information about pregnancy options, prescribe medical abortions in early pregnancy and make referrals for surgical abortions. Medical information is also available through HealthLink BC by calling 811. 

However, dedicated reproductive health clinics and information lines are able to provide specialized care and resources, such as on-call care and detailed follow-ups.

At the Women’s Vita Medical Clinic, that means multiple phone calls with a patient before they come into the clinic, says nurse Kassidy Delcaro. 

“Even the government implies it’s going to take a 10-minute appointment to give a medical abortion,” she explains. “Some of the people I see have never been told how birth control [or abortion] works … proper birth control counseling can take quite a while.”

“By the time I actually see them … we’ve already developed a relationship. The phone calls are not quick. I gather information and answer questions,” Delcaro says.

The Women’s Vita Clinic is more than equipped to discuss a pregnant person’s options with them, whether they’d like an abortion or not, she adds.

“Anybody who has a uterus is welcome to come in for sexual health issues, birth control, puberty teaching, menopause, pregnancy [and] abortion care.” [end]

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