Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) are anti-choice organizations that pose as health clinics. Usually funded by the Catholic Church, CPCs lure women in to prevent them from accessing birth control, abortion, and other services condemned by the church.
Currently there are several thousand CPCs in the United States — and at least one in the U-District.
In response to this epidemic, the King County Board of Health (BOH) requires CPCs to disclose that they aren’t, in fact, health clinics. Large posters must be presented at CPCs’ entrances, with 48-point type reading, “This facility is not a healthcare facility.”
The BOH recognizes that CPCs pose a serious threat to women who seek timely reproductive care, but CPCs are legally allowed to exist as nonprofits.
This is the case with Wellness for Washington Women, or 3W, a CPC on 8th Avenue Northeast in the U-District.
Helen Nguyen, 3W’s executive director, denies that the nonprofit is a CPC, saying the BOH’s regulations have mischaracterized 3W as an anti-choice facility that denies clients information about available reproductive health care services.
Patricia Atwater, UW’s director of health promotion, agrees that 3W’s legal status is unclear.
“3W would say they’re not a crisis pregnancy center because they have a doctor,” Atwater said. “And we could debate that until the cows come home.”
However, 3W checks off all of the boxes associated with CPCs. Namely, like many CPCs, the facility has deep roots in the Catholic Church. In fact, before founding 3W, Nguyen worked directly for the Archdiocese of Seattle. However, like most CPCs, 3W denies their religious influences.
Churches like St. Joseph’s in Issaquah, Holy Rosary Parish in Edmonds, and St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Burien have fundraised or advocated for 3W. Anti-choice group Wenatchee Right to Life has also rallied behind 3W.
Like typical CPCs, 3W also does not provide condoms, birth control, abortion care, or referrals for these services. Nguyen denies that this lack in care is a reflection of 3W’s religious backing. Rather, she claims that 3W’s OB-GYN Susan Rutherford, does not provide referrals to preventative services because she does not have any connections to the Seattle OB-GYN community.
“My physician doesn’t know anyone in that field,” Nguyen said in an interview with The Daily. “So she feels uncomfortable referring out to a place she doesn’t have a relationship with.
Long before 3W opened a physical location in 2018, the CPC was asking Hall Health to refer students to their services.
“I’d like to say that we are consistently in communication [with Hall Health],” Nguyen said. “We want to build a strong relationship with them.”
According to Atwater, communication began when 3W tried to sponsor a health fair led by First Year Programs and Hall Health. When Hall Health staff members became aware of this communication, they stepped in and refused to let the CPC sponsor the event.
“There’s a small community of women’s health specialists in Seattle and they all know each other,” Atwater said. “Our staff knew about the way [Susan Rutherford] operates in terms of birth control and abortion.”
Atwater explained that Hall Health, which offers a full array of reproductive health services, wants to empower students to make their own choices, rather than be “presented with half the picture.” Atwater said this is impossible when students are denied referrals to comprehensive care.
Nguyen, however, claims that 3W’s lack of referrals doesn’t impede an individual’s ability to get abortion care.
“You don’t need a referral for an abortion,” Nguyen said. “You can get on to your computer and be like, ‘Where’s the closest one to me?’ And that’s your choice.”
It’s a misconception, however, that abortions are easy to access in Seattle.
“Washington has this reputation [of being pro-choice], but what a lot of people don’t know is that we only have a pro-choice majority in the [Washington state House of Representatives] by two votes,” Huskies for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington President Liliana Rasmussen said. “So we actually don’t have as much of a pro-choice Legislature as a lot of people tend to think.”
Atwater concurred, explaining that accessing abortion care can be difficult to navigate, especially when pregnant women have to figure out payment options.
“I would strongly refute that it’s easy for people –– just because they’re in Seattle –– to access abortion care without a really warm and thoughtful referral to a provider,” Atwater said.
Hall Health not only provides these referrals for abortions, they also help students get health insurance or apply for emergency funds. Hall Health only refers students to providers that are trusted by the UW Medicine system and deemed both unbiased and comprehensive. This means that, from an organizational standpoint, it is unlikely that Hall Health would refer students to 3W, since it doesn’t provide any additional medical services that students can’t already access on campus.
Atwater also brought up 3W’s lack of contraception options, including condoms, as an indication of its illegitimate status. Seattle public facilities, including public high schools, have provided free condoms as far back as the 1990s, recognizing them as an essential part of sexual health.
“You essentially control your destiny with [condoms],” Atwater said. “We can’t talk about STI prevention without condoms … they’re among the lowest hanging fruits in terms of contraception and STI prevention.”
Despite Hall Health’s refusal to collaborate with 3W, the CPC has continued to reach out, at times specifically targeting vulnerable students. For example, 3W approached Leadership Without Borders, an initiative that supports undocumented UW students, last spring.
According to the Leadership Without Borders coordinator Karen Gamez, officials from the Ethnic Cultural Center toured 3W’s facilities, but quickly became skeptical of the CPC’s “evidence based” approach to contraception, a vague term used by 3W to describe their services.
Atwater explained that undocumented students aren’t eligible for health insurance, and are therefore uniquely vulnerable to crisis pregnancy centers that offer free and low cost services.
“Vulnerable students are going to be drawn to a clinic like 3W medical that purports to be very inclusive and open,” Atwater said. “When in fact it has this ulterior motive [to] prevent people from using birth control and prevent people from exercising their right to abortion.”
This targeting is what inspired Huskies for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington to introduce a bill to the ASUW Student Senate aimed at limiting 3W’s presence on campus.
“We thought it was important that we take action to protect students, especially vulnerable students [like] freshman who aren’t sure which clinics they can go to,” Rasmussen said.
The bill, titled “Students for Comprehensive, Unbiased Medical Care,” originally tabled by the Student Senate last quarter, is set to be reintroduced to the senate floor March 4. The bill directly references 3W, and requires the UW to only refer students to health care providers that offer “comprehensive, unbiased healthcare.”
Atwater agreed that 3W should have no place on campus, but also acknowledged that the CPC is taking advantage of a serious flaw in America’s healthcare system, in which uninsured individuals have few options for comprehensive care.
“3W offers low-cost STI testing which is a real need,” Atwater said. “Anyone who’s tried to get STI testing without insurance or without good insurance knows that it can be expensive, and there’s not a free clinic that exists in our imaginations.”
Ultimately, Atwater believes that health care needs to become more accessible so that students and other individuals don’t have to rely on deceptive crisis pregnancy centers.
“That’s something that as a campus we need to have, you know?” Atwater said. “[We need] a better option for students than to go to 3W.”
Update: there are alternative options for little to no-cost STD testing services outside of 3W. The Public Health STD clinic at Harborview Medical Center provides STD testing and other health services on a sliding scale. No patient will be turned away due to lack of ability to pay, and all services are confidential and non-judgmental.
Reach reporter Claudia Yaw at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @yawclaudia
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