The Right’s Phony Abortion Racket

Against the Current, No. 20, May/June 1989

an interview with Ann Menasche

Ann Menasche, a feminist attorney and activist who lived in San Francisco, recently won a big victory in a lawsuit against an anti-abortion group that masqueraded as a clinic in order to frighten or trick women into not having abortions.

She was interviewed by Linda Ray (a reproductive rights activist and nurse at a city clinic) and Peter Drucker for Against the Current.

ATC: How did this case get started?

Ann Menasche: Carla Abbotts phoned me to tell me about an experience she had in San Francisco with a so-called clinic. She thought she was pregnant and found under the telephone-book heading “Clinic” an ad for A Free Pregnancy Center, which offered “free pregnancy tests while you wait.” They said all their services were free. So she called up, made an appointment and went in with a urine sample.

The center looked like a regular doctor’s office or a medical clinic. They took her into a room and a woman started asking her some questions, filling out a form. Some of them were regular medical questions about when was your last period and that sort of thing.

A couple of things were a little strange, such as asking her about her religion or about her relationship with her boyfriend. But the strangest thing was when Carla was told when her baby would be born — even before she had the pregnancy test.

Then the woman said, “We have a presentation for you to watch.” Carla figured it was something about birth control. She knew all about that, so she didn’t really want to see it. She asked, “Is it necessary? Do I have to watch it?”

The woman said “Yes.” She put her into a room and turned on the slide show. The slide show began with music and proceeded to quote statistics about how dangerous abortion is: women dying from abortions, committing suicide over abortions, having high rates of hemorrhage and infertility. They were telling a series of horror stories. She watched the blown up pictures of fetuses for a few minutes, getting more angry.

Finally she figured out how to shut off the machine. The woman must have been waiting right outside the door because she came into the room almost immediately and confronted her with “Why did you shut this off?” Carla said “You’re lucky I didn’t throw it out the window.”

They got into a heated argument about abortion. The woman was trying to encourage her to put her “child” up for adoption. Finally Carla said, “You know I came here for a pregnancy test and you still haven’t told me whether I’m pregnant or not. You still haven’t given me my results. I’m here, I want my results, now give them to me!”

When she was informed that the results were positive Carla left, saying, “You haven’t heard the last of me.” And they hadn’t. That was just the beginning.

She had an abortion. Immediately afterwards she tried to find out if there was anything she could do about what had happened. She called the Better Business Bureau and various other agencies. Everybody turned her away. She called Women, lnc. And they recommended me.

When she told me the story I had never heard of that type of place, even though I had been active in pro-choice work for years. We began an extensive investigation of the place from my office. The wife of the attorney who shared space in my building was pregnant, and she was our urine supplier. My clerk got all her friends to be investigators. They pretended they were pregnant, got the urine from the refrigerator, went down to the clinic and went through the procedure.

ATC: With the same results?

AM: We confirmed that there was a hard sell to convince women not to have abortions, primarily through using a slide-show presentation. Women were either told they had to watch it, or it was turned on even though they said they didn’t want to watch it. They were manipulated into watching it. They were basically being used as a “captive audience” for anti-abortion propaganda.

Victimizing Teenagers

ATC: Did you find other women who had come to the center in order to get abortions? AM: When we filed suit we got lots of publicity-there was a pro-choice picket line in front of the fake clinic and everything — so I got a number of phone calls. One was from Terri Byrne, another woman victimized like Carla. As a result of her experience she has become active in the movement to maintain legal abortion. She was a very good witness.

The second call we got was from a member of the San Francisco Police Department, Juvenile Division. Officer Eisenmann phoned  me, “I read  about your case in the paper and, you know, we’ve been investigating that place.” He told me about a teenager who had wanted an abortion and called A Free Pregnancy Center because Planned Parenthood happened to be closed.

The story of this fifteen-year-old helped to strengthen our case. When she asked how much they charged for an abortion they told her to come on in, they could talk with her about it once she got there. Then they gave her the heavy treatment with the slide show. She was scared when she heard that she could never have a child if she had an abortion. But at the end of the first session she was still determined to have one. That’s how badly she wanted one!

The woman who worked at the center, Carolyn Connelly, really manipulated her. She got her to come back again and again, something like a total of ten times. The teenager didn’t have anyone else to talk with and was dependent on Connelly, who said she and her would arrange to get the abortion for her. But they were just stringing her along.

Finally, when the teenager was six months pregnant Connelly told her it was too late for an abortion. Although the center is not licensed for adoption, the woman began to arrange for adoption of the baby.

The teenager was worried about her parents — they didn’t know she was pregnant. The center staff concocted this scheme of getting her out of the house so she could have her baby without her parents finding out. They began arranging for her to go to a home for unwed mothers in Hawaii.

But in order to do that, they needed her parent’s permission. They sent the family a letter, purportedly from the Pearson Foundation Overseas Education Program, saying the teenager had won a scholarship. The letter claimed that the program was approved by the Board of Education. They sent along a permission slip to be signed and returned.

The mother, who spoke only Chinese, brought the letter to a counselor at the “Y” to be translated. The counselor contacted the principal of the high school, who had never heard of the program. Neither had the San Francisco Board of Education. Actually the Pearson Foundation Overseas Education Program doesn’t exist.

Basically the center wanted to get the teenager out of the house in order to have the baby. No matter what law they had to break, no matter who they had to lie to, they just had to stop the abortion at all costs. Her parents would not even have known where she was. It was an incredible scandal.

ATC: They would have taken the baby if they had gotten away with this?

AM: Well, they had set up an adoption, even though the center was not licensed to do so. They were willing to do whatever they had to do in order to stop the abortion. After the parents found out, the teenager did go to a home for unwed mothers, in San Francisco. Her parents were not supportive and they didn’t want the grandmother, who lived with them, to know what was happening. The teenager ended up giving the child up for adoption through a licensed agency.

ATC: What was the outcome of the trial? AM: The judge found that the center had engaged in false advertising and ‘unfair business practices. He issued a permanent injunction requiring them to state in all ads that they’re not a medical facility, and that they provide alternatives to abortion. The court also ordered a disclaimer added to the anti-abortion slide show saying that “the majority of medical studies show that first-trimester vacuum aspirator abortion is a safe medical procedure.”

At trial, we presented overwhelming evidence that abortion is a medically safe procedure. Even the defendant’s own witness — Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who used to be with National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and became a turncoat — agreed with us. They flew him out from New York to be their medical witness, to give evidence in support of their slide show. But he had to admit that abortion is safe. What he was concerned about was the fetus.

The judge also found that the clinic had attempted an illegal adoption and child abduction, and it is restrained from such activities.

Do-It-Yourself Fraud

ATC: And the Pearson Foundation?

AM: The foundation, with its headquarters in St Louis, was found to have aided and abetted the illegal practice of the center.

The foundation has a manual, “How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center,” by Robert J. Pearson. It’s a how-to book about how to fool the public and how to attract “abortion-bound mothers” so you can talk them out of it.

It says, “You may have violated a law of the state but the law of God is more important!” They even advocate hiding a minor from her parents in order to stop an abortion. Pearson claims responsibility for 200 centers around the country.

We uncovered a conspiracy in this trial. Pearson had given three or four workshops in the Bay Area on his method of deception. He’s a very “hands-on” kind of guy. For instance, he talked about how to pick the name: Use a neutral name in publicity, otherwise people who want abortions won’t come. Don’t say too much on the telephone. If they ask if you do abortions, you need to avoid the question and just say, “Come in and we’ll talk about it.”

Pearson advocates misleading the public so that women who want abortions will think that they can get help at such centers. It’s spelled out in black and white in this manual. So now there’s an injunction against the Pearson Foundation.

ATC: Concretely, what does that mean?

AM: They are restrained from aiding and abetting any of the illegal activities of any anti-abortion center in California. There’s never before been such an injunction.

Our trial showed that A Free Pregnancy Center and the Pearson Foundation are in total cahoots with each other. They’re buddies. They’re on the phone all the time. There are letters back and forth all the time. When the San Francisco center was first getting started and hadn’t established their non-profit status, the donations they received were channeled through the Pearson Foundation, which already had established its non-profit status.

The same sort of thing was happening with another fake clinic that the Pearson Foundation helped set up in San Jose. Both centers had all the Pearson Foundation equipment, they had its slide show, its pamphlets. They were all working together: the San Jose people, the San Francisco people and the Pearson Foundation people. Of course the Pearson Foundation position was, “We have nothing to do with this. All we do is sell them some things.” But the evidence was overwhelming.

ATC: How long did it take to get the favorable judgment?

AM: Three years.

ATC: Are there similar suits pending?

AM: Since my client filed suit, there have been other cases in several other states, including Missouri, North Dakota, New York and Texas. Just recently the teenager who testified about her unwanted pregnancy filed her own suit for damages. She is angry about how she was manipulated by the center’s staff.

ATC: What is important about this case? AM There are two aspects to the case. First, we showed how fundamentally dishonest the anti-abortionists are. They try to portray themselves as moral and caring people, but here we proved that their strategy is to prey on the unsuspecting woman, attempting to  manipulate her at a time when she needs good counseling and not dishonest propaganda. The anti-abortionists are revealed to be liars and cheats. The case has exposed their true colors.

Second, we made it more difficult for them to carry out the tactic of using a phony clinic. Fundamental to their fake clinic strategy is pretending to be a medical clinic providing abortions or abortion referrals and unbiased counseling. Their scheme is predicated on being dishonest. If they have to admit what they are, that defeats their purpose-women considering abortion will not go to them.

Public education is critical. And the good thing about having a lawsuit is that it generates a lot of publicity. When we first filed suit women demonstrated in front of A Free Pregnancy Center. And last January, on the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, the women’s march went by the fake clinic.

ATC: If information about birth control and abortion were more readily available, if there were public centers where anyone could go, people would know where to go and what to do.

AM: Of course they are using a tactic even sophisticated people can’t spot right away. That’s why they developed it-to try to trick women into being unable to carry out a decision they have made. And our trial showed them to be scoundrels.

Opening up these anti-abortion propaganda centers is just one tactic that the right wing uses to attack a woman’s access to abortion. It’s particularly aimed at the most vulnerable, least knowledgeable women. They are perhaps the most successful with teenagers whose parents will not help them. These young women have few resources. Very often they feel utterly alone, unable to talk with anyone about their problem. Other women, like my client, will get mad and leave.

ATC: Where does this fit in with the right wing’s strategy?

AM: Since anti-abortionists weren’t successful at banning abortion altogether, they have attempted to reshape the political climate by a series of attacks aimed at whittling away a woman’s access. Harassment of abortion clinics and denying funding for women on Medicaid are other tactics that they employ in addition to setting up phony clinics.

It’s interesting that the center’s lawyers have defended the “Operation Rescue” people when they were arrested for blocking the entrances of Bay Area abortion clinics. But it is important to remember that these tactics are all part of the right-wing’s ultimate goal of outlawing abortion for all women.

May-June 1989, ATC 20

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