November 4, 2017
Last Saturday, in a large open studio in Northeast Minneapolis about two dozen people sat in rows of folding chairs, theater-style, laptops open and ready to go. Onstage, comedienne and activist Lizz Winstead—a black stocking cap with a bright gold uterus on it perched precariously in her curls—was telling her own personal story of teen pregnancy, her visit to a 1978 crisis pregnancy center, and their utter refusal to offer any abortion information or referrals to a young girl scared, pregnant and alone.
“I ended up at a CPC because they were advertised on a bus,” she explained to her audience. “I thought they were going to help me.” Instead, the woman behind the desk showed her graphic photos, steadily avoided asking questions about Winstead’s own life or medical background, and then told her, “We do not talk about abortion, because abortion is against ‘our law.’”
“You have two choices,” Winstead remembers being told. “Mommy or murder.”
Despite the pressure, Winstead eventually found an actual abortion provider and ended the pregnancy, but the experience is partially responsible for one of her newest actions—#exposefakeclinics. Working together with ReproAction, the 1in3 Campaign and Abortion Access Hackathon, Winstead’s own reproductive rights action organization Lady Parts Justice (LPJ) arranged a weekend of nationwide “review-a-thons” of crisis pregnancy centers spread across the nation. The events were held in multiple cities throughout the U.S. and, due to the efforts of 1in3, at about 150 college campuses as well.
The national action is just the latest from LPJ, which has evolved from what Winstead called a “Funny or Die for repro rights” to an organization that specializes in on the ground actions to support local abortion clinics, from hosting comedy events combined with abortion-provider speakouts to her cross-country “Vagical Mystery Tour” of rural and red-state clinics to even hands on clinic assistance such as painting murals on clinic redecorating a waiting room with pro-abortion rights artwork and messages or painting a “Yellow Brick Road” on one clinic sidewalk to separate it from the crisis pregnancy center right next door.
Even the #exposefakeclinics event in Minneapolis combined all of these various supports as guests donned gold vagina tattoos, filled out postcards to be sent to providers, and wrote special, supportive messages for “Jane Doe,” the undocumented Texas teen forced to carry a pregnancy for an additional month as the Trump administration blocked her from accessing a safe, legal abortion.
But the focus of the action locally was to examine the websites of the state’s crisis pregnancy centers, which in Minnesota and at least 13 other states are directly funded by state taxpayers. After interacting with the websites—or, calling the centers directly on the phone—activists were then trained on how to write reviews to post on Google or Yelp to clarify for future potential patients that these centers do not offer all options when it comes to reproductive health care and unwanted pregnancies.
“These people own SEO [search engine optimization],” Winstead explained. “If you google, ‘I’m pregnant and need help,’ this is what is going to show up first. We need for the first thing for people to see is that they do not provide abortions.”
The effort was tested out prior to the national event on Saturday, and abortion opponents – especially CPC owners – have already noticed. “Attempting to bring online reviews on Google, Facebook, Yelp and Yahoo down to the level of Planned Parenthood—where words like ‘nasty,’ ‘filthy’ and ‘disgusting’ are persistent themes—Winstead’s cadre of pregnancy center-hating ‘hacktivists’ have run into the same essential problem as the in-person picketers: The mud they’re slinging doesn’t stick,” Jay Hobbs wrote for Pregnancy Health Centers. He reported that the centers allegedly alerted Google staff to remove “over 40 negative reviews” from the system.
“Extend Web Services's Tim Stephens has also urged Google representatives to investigate the spate of negative reviews by Access Columbus and others, calling attention to Google’s policy that accepts reviews only from those with a legitimate past interaction with a business or organization,” Hobbs added.
Winstead admitted that in some cases the reviews should have been removed, but those reviews didn’t adhere to her goal, which was about clarifying the services of the centers for unfamiliar potential patients. “Maybe some of them were taken down, and that’s fine. They weren’t interacting with the business,” she agreed. “Some of them may have been funny, or cute, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to let people know that these are not real clinics. They don’t offer the morning after pill or abortion care. They won’t offer birth control if you turned out to not be pregnant. That’s how they are deceptive and we want people to know. They have a right to know.”
Winstead found the argument that their reviews were illegitimate because the posters hadn’t “used” the services to be disingenuine. “We are reviewing the website. That is part of their business,” she noted.
After a brief training of what to look for when it comes to the websites [“How long does it take to find on the site that they don’t refer for abortions?” Winstead suggested. “Do they talk about their stance on Plan B or birth control? Does it say that their doctors are licensed, or their counselors are licensed? Do they state their ultrasounds are done by licensed technicians?”], and suggestions of verbiage to use in the reviews in order to be accurate about the centers, [“At First Choice they say they offer all options and information. But it does not offer or refer for abortions.”], the audience breaks into smaller groups to hit the web.
Teams of two to five divide up the fairly extensive list of Minnesota CPCs, with one room jumping on a cell to call their section while other tables click link after link, adding reviews and upvoting those already there. Motown music floats in the background and, ironically, the Ronettes sing “Be My Little Baby” as one review after another joins the semi-permanent record of the internet.
Will they still be there in another week, or will abortion opponents—already alerted to the incoming flux of responses—organize their own powerful force to remove them or push them back to the bottom of the pile? Winstead doesn’t know, she only knows that its worth the effort to try if even one person avoids a CPC that they originally assumed was an abortion clinic. After all, finding yourself in a pregnancy center when you are actually trying to find out how to terminate your pregnancy is no joke, as Winstead knows.
“We are not in the business of being snarky,” she says, her characteristic humor set aside. “We just want them to be transparent.”