If Sacramento crisis pregnancy centers closed, poor women would lose services they need

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has said that she wants every single crisis pregnancy center in the country shuttered, and has introduced legislation that she hopes will accomplish that goal.

“Those crisis pregnancy centers that are there to fool people who are looking for pregnancy termination help outnumber true abortion clinics by three to one,” Warren said. “We need to shut them down here in Massachusetts, and we need to shut them down all around the country.”

Are we really so easily deceived that we can’t tell the difference between a clinic that performs abortions and one that does not? I believe women who say that’s what happened to them, but it’s not true that this is how all such places operate.

And whatever your view of abortion rights, for someone without resources who wants to carry her baby to term but needs all the help she can get, the closure of these clinics would be a real loss.

Because just as Planned Parenthood and other clinics that perform abortions offer services that crisis pregnancy centers do not, the reverse is also true. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, California has been held up as an abortion destination. But in Sacramento and across the state, poor women who’ve decided to continue their pregnancies still need the kind of help that clinics that do perform abortions don’t provide.


At the Sacramento Life Center, which opened 50 years ago, “we get referrals from Planned Parenthood,” says Executive Director Marie Leatherby, “because we fill a gap they don’t.” According to her database, five patients have said they were referred by Planned Parenthood in the last two years.

Andrew Adams, chief of staff for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, said no, that never happens. “That’s categorically false. We would never refer someone to a crisis pregnancy center. They would have gone there on their own.”

I don’t see how he can know that no clinic worker ever told a client she could get a free ultrasound or crib across town, but it’s true that I only heard that from those who work for clinics that do not perform abortions.

Heidi Matzke, the executive director of Alternatives Pregnancy Center in Sacramento, said during a recent U.S. Senate hearing on abortion access, “Ironically, where we are at in Sacramento, California, Planned Parenthood actually refers patients to us. … The fact that Planned Parenthood sees the value of who we are and what we offer to women is important for everyone here to understand.” Later, in an email, she said, “We’ve had 16 people since January check a box on their intake form that said they heard about us from PP.”

At Claris Health in Los Angeles, a non-profit community clinic that specializes in pregnancy loss, adoption and post-abortion care, CEO Talitha Phillips says, “We do receive referrals from several abortion providers in our area. We’ve received referral slips.”

Sometimes, she says, “that’s because we provide the service at no cost” that other clinics charge for. Other times, she says, clients come in for an ultrasound “to see if the pregnancy is viable and then decide whether to terminate. Some people don’t want to do that on the same day” as a termination.

“I never knew whether higher-ups were OK with it,” Leatherby said of these referrals. But it doesn’t strike her as at all surprising that some frontline Planned Parenthood counselors would refer women they can’t help to her, since “most of them are compassionate people” — her pro-choice counseling counterparts, she means — “and are just interested in helping women, just like we are.”

Not all crisis pregnancy centers are the same

So what gaps are Sacramento Life filling exactly?

A fully licensed and accredited medical clinic, it signs clients up for Medi-Cal and WIC and finds them, doctors, including pediatricians, for ongoing care. It’s non-religious and does not proselytize, but does offer prenatal vitamins and care, parenting classes, fatherhood mentors for men, big-ticket items such as strollers, car seats, and cribs, and a monthly supply of diapers, baby food, and clothes for two years. All of this is free — paid for through private donations.

The Claris website spells out what it does not do: “To be clear, Claris does not perform abortions.” The Alternatives Pregnancy Center’s site does not say that, but lists “abortion pill reversal” and “abortion recovery classes” among its services, which seems like a pretty direct message.

Sacramento Life doesn’t mention abortion at all on its website, but says, “Making sure every pregnant woman has the resources and support she needs to give birth to and raise her child in a loving home is our unwavering focus.’’ Her clinic and others also help trans couples and see men for STD testing, she said. “We take everybody.”

Some people still call or come in thinking Sacramento Life does perform abortions, says Leatherby, who before taking this job a decade ago sold real estate. But “we’re very upfront. We don’t ‘dupe’ women to come in. I don’t agree with clinics that would ever do that.”

But then, she adds, not all places we might consider crisis pregnancy centers are the same: “There are good restaurants and bad restaurants.”

Phillips, of Claris Health, also made that point: “We’re very transparent when people call, but there are other organizations I’ve seen that could come across as more manipulative.”

The umbrella term “crisis pregnancy center” can refer to two grandmas handing out blankets and advice, or to a true medical clinic.

Claris rejects even the name “crisis pregnancy center,” which Phillips says “has been used to target organizations.” She says her organization has rejected that label from both the right and the left: “It’s not just the pro-choice side but the pro-life side saying, ‘We’re going to decide who you are.’’’

Though Claris rejects the “pro-life” label, too — “we stay away from all political terms,” — she’s had anti-abortion groups refuse to take Claris off their list. And her organization was disinvited from a scheduled college campus visit with a mobile clinic that was only going to offer free pap smears.

A repeat client of Sacramento Life, 35-year-old Kristen Marshall, who lives in Carmichael, told me that counselors there are like family to her, helping her through a total of 10 pregnancies since the day she saw their phone number on their mobile van 15 years ago.

“Growing up in foster care, I never had mothering or a support system,” and this program has been that for her, she said, through the birth of her three children, six miscarriages, and one abortion, which she had during an abusive relationship, not long after the birth of a child with serious physical challenges.

She did mention that Sacramento Life counselors pressured her on one front, strongly urging her to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. But “I have their support whatever I decide to do. It’s your body. It’s your choice. I do feel like they’re pro-life, but I know I’m not going to be judged there. Some other programs, you have to take certain classes to get certain benefits. They don’t do that.”

This is an explosive time for both abortion clinics and crisis pregnancy centers, and attacks on either are in all cases inexcusable. If calling abortion doctors murderers can lead to violence, and of course it can, and has, then how does calling crisis pregnancy centers “fake clinics” that exist to trick the vulnerable not carry that same risk?

Matzke, of Alternatives Pregnancy, testified at the Senate hearing that she sees the man who came to the clinic door with a machete early one recent morning, before a security guard scared him away, as part of the wave of post-Roe attacks on clinics like hers. She sees the woman who tried to drive away with the clinic’s mobile van several weeks ago in that same light.

Times and crimes being what they are, these incidents might have had nothing to do with abortion. But of course, she’d fear that they were related, given the many documented attacks that have occurred across the country. And that her clinic recently spent $150,000 on enhanced security rather than on services for those in need is something we all ought to be able to see as worse than a waste.