Allentown City Council wants to label crisis pregnancy centers. What are these groups, and how do they operate in the Lehigh Valley region?

There were no clients for a time at Bright Hope Pregnancy Support Center’s Allentown clinic in the afternoon of July 14.

Jonathan Merwarth, director of Bright Hope Pregnancy Support Centers in Allentown and Easton, said the clinics usually serve three or four clients a day, a number that hasn’t changed since the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision that overturned the nationwide right to abortion. But they are ready to take on more clients.

Their clinic is well staffed and looks like a small doctor’s office — its walls are a neutral white or light gray and a receptionist sits up front. Down the hallway, they have a room where they conduct free pregnancy tests, STI tests and ultrasounds. In the back, there is a room for “pregnancy options” consultations and one-on-one “life skills” classes.

Bright Hope, which has operated in the Lehigh Valley for more than 40 years under many names, fits under the broad umbrella of crisis pregnancy centers, facilities that usually provide services to pregnant people and new parents but are also geared to dissuade people from getting abortions.

Crisis pregnancy centers have been a fixture in the anti-abortion movement for decades but have long been criticized by abortion rights advocates — including recently by some on Allentown City Council — who say they employ deceptive, unscrupulous and aggressive strategies to dissuade or prevent women from getting abortion care.

Pregnancy centers in Pennsylvania outnumber abortion care facilities by a factor of about 9 to 1, a report published by Legal Voice, Women’s Law Project and several other pro-abortion rights legal advocacy groups found. Some receive public funds. Real Alternatives, a network that operates 27 centers across Pennsylvania but none in the Lehigh Valley, has gotten more than $100 million in state taxpayer dollars over the last 20 years.

In the post-Roe v. Wade landscape, some crisis pregnancy centers are looking to take on a more significant role, especially in states where abortion has been banned or restricted. They are increasing the number of centers they have, expanding centers and reimagining how they operate.

Abortion remains legal in Pennsylvania, but the right hangs in the balance on the gubernatorial election in November. Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro said he would protect abortion rights, but Republican nominee Doug Mastriano has said he would ban abortion at six weeks with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the pregnant person.

But for now, Merwarth said Bright Hope has no plans to expand its role or services.

“It seems like what we have in place is sufficient,” Merwarth said. “At this point, we could handle an increase in need for what we do. I have no idea at what point we’ll need to expand beyond what we’re doing.”

Several crisis pregnancy centers operate in the Lehigh Valley region under four different organizations.

Life’s Choices operates two facilities, one in Kutztown and one in Hamburg. The Kutztown location has an ultrasound machine and employs a nurse and registered sonographer. It provides free sexual health services such as sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. It also offers parenting and life skills classes and relationship counseling.

Joy Stutzman, the executive director at Life’s Choices, said the center is apolitical and funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

“If someone is considering an abortion, we will give them information from the Department of Health,” Stutzman said. “We’re not political. We were started 35 years ago here in Kutztown, and it’s actually written into our bylaws that we’re not activists, we’re not trying to influence legislation in any way.”

Stutzman said Life’s Choices provides pregnant people with “options counseling,” based on a Department of Health pregnancy and abortion booklet and ultimately refers them back to their gynecologist.

The contents of booklets the Pennsylvania Department of Health provides on pregnancy and abortion are guided by standards set in place by Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act. State law requires information in the booklets to be factual but also make clear what the risks of abortion and pregnancy are, must list numerous alternatives to abortion and must also contain realistic or actual depictions of fetuses at every two weeks of gestation.

Merwarth said Bright Hope does not make referrals for abortion and does not encourage the procedure either but their goal isn’t to create a hostile environment for anyone.

“Even if a client leaves with the mindset that they still want an abortion, we want them to feel like they can come back,” Merwarth said.

He said Bright Hope does not encourage its members to engage in anti-abortion advocacy or protest outside abortion care centers. He said he supports people’s right to hold peaceful conversations with patients outside abortion centers but opposes aggressive or hostile tactics.

“If anyone is harassing people trying to go into the abortion centers, blocking them from entering, not letting people go who obviously don’t want to have a conversation, yelling at them from the side — I’d even go as far to say holding signs with graphic images or ‘stop the murder’ — things like that shouldn’t happen,” he said.

He said Bright Hope’s goal is to provide services to women who want to continue a pregnancy or need help with early motherhood. It provides free options counseling where abortion is discussed as well as parenting and adoption, he said.

Bright Hope’s Allentown center has a clinical laboratory permit from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and offers free urine pregnancy tests, ultrasound services and sexually transmitted infection testing. It has a registered nurse on staff and a local OBY-GYN, Dr. Michael Bruce Viechnicki, serves as the center’s medical director and provides some supervision, including looking over ultrasound scans.

Viechnicki said he looks over the ultrasounds to confirm the pregnancy but also check for any abnormalities. He said the primary goal of the ultrasound is to discourage women from getting an abortion and encourage them to keep their pregnancy.

“We want to give women, especially abortion-minded ones, confirmation that there is a baby in there that has a heartbeat,” Viechnicki said.

But he added it’s also about connecting pregnant people to resources during and after pregnancy that will help them.

Besides counseling services, Merwarth said Bright Hope also helps clients apply for government assistance and can make referrals for medical care or services in the community.

Bright Hope also operates a temporary home program for pregnant women and mothers ages 18-22. The program, called Door of Hope Transitional Housing, is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“The idea is to take them from homelessness to self-sufficiency and self-sustainability,” Merwarth said.

Care Net of Carbon County, a local branch of the evangelical Christian pregnancy center network Care Net, provides free information and services such as counseling, treatment and educational classes on topics such as parenting and anger management.

“We’re here, in a word, to provide abundant life to people,” Executive Director Suzi DeMara said. “We offer over a hundred parenting sessions, co-parenting, single parenting and beyond.”

DeMara added that Care Net is an apolitical nonprofit seeking to provide compassionate assistance to families in their community.

During The Morning Call’s visit to the clinic in early August, a Care Net employee tried to prevent a reporter from taking free informational brochures after initially saying they were available to the public.

When the reporter asked to browse the brochures’ titles, the employee tried to impede the reporter’s view. After the reporter took a brochure titled “You’re Considering an Abortion: What Can Happen to You?,” the employee tried unsuccessfully to take it back, then requested that the reporter leave the clinic.

DeMara said she was aware that her employee tried to prevent the reporter from accessing the clinic’s free information.

“[The employee] did not know why [the reporter] was doing it, for what reason [the reporter] wanted the information,” DeMara said. “That’s all I can say.”

Crossroads Pregnancy Care in Quakertown declined to discuss its operations on the record with The Morning Call.

Critics of pregnancy centers argue they trick women who are seeking abortions.

Among them are members of Allentown City Council, which received jeers and cheers from pro- and anti-abortion rights advocates at a recent meeting over a series of abortion-related ordinances that included regulating the “deceptive advertising practices” of crisis pregnancy centers.

Merwarth argued in an interview that deceptive advertising was already covered under Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law. But he specifically took issue with the way some council members wanted to relabel any pregnancy services center a “limited services pregnancy center” unless it provides abortions or emergency contraception or referrals for such services.

Tara Murtha, spokesperson for the pro-abortion rights Women’s Law Project and co-writer on the Legal Voice’s pregnancy center report, said crisis pregnancy centers embed the word abortion as much as possible in their website to try to rank higher on online search results for abortion providers.

She said there is no law on the books in Pennsylvania requiring crisis pregnancy centers make it clear they do not offer abortion services or make referrals for abortion services.

Of the four area pregnancy centers, three — Bright Hope, Crossroads and Care Net of Carbon County — had entries on their websites dedicated to abortion. Crossroads and Care Net’s websites had disclaimers in small text at the bottom of at least one page indicating they do not refer for or perform abortions.

Several searches for abortion services in Allentown and the Lehigh Valley returned the area’s two abortion clinics — the Allentown Women’s Center and Planned Parenthood — as well as various news stories on the first page of results. Bright Hope appeared as the last first-page result on one such search.

Murtha said the information about abortion shared by some center’s websites is usually misleading, false and in some cases dangerous.

Crossroads Pregnancy Care, in Quakertown, promotes abortion reversal on its website, a practice the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has called “unproven and unethical.”

There is no scientific evidence supporting or discrediting the practice of abortion reversal, which usually involves taking a hormone to counteract mifepristone, the first pill taken in a medication abortion.

In 2019, the only scientific study of pregnancy reversal ended prematurely after three of the 12 women enrolled needed emergency hospitalization because of severe vaginal bleeding. Dr. Michelle Chen, one of the researchers on the study, said the bleeding was much heavier than what is typically seen after medication abortion or miscarriage.

She said the interrupted study wasn’t able to determine if abortion reversal was effective, but did reveal a risk of not finishing the abortion pill procedure.

“We don’t know the exact reason for the heavy bleeding, but we do know that taking mifepristone without taking misoprostol, the second half of the medication regimen, can have serious risks of bleeding,” Chen said.

Many pregnancy centers’ websites and brochures discuss the risks of abortion while understating the risks of pregnancy and childbirth. There are risks associated with abortion — some minor and some severe, like heavy bleeding — but legal abortion in the U.S. is less likely to result in complications than pregnancy or giving birth. The risk of complications from abortion is about 2%, according to multiple studies including one by the University of California San Fransisco, whereas the risk of complications during pregnancy is about 8%, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The Care Net brochure, “You’re Considering an Abortion: What Can Happen to You,” was published in 2007 and contains disputed information on the health risks of abortion under such headings as “Death,” “Ectoptic (Tubal) Pregnancy,” “Premature Birth,” “Uterine and Cervical Damage,” “Breast Cancer” and “Future Pregnancies.”

Among its claims, the brochure states that having an abortion increases a person’s risk of breast cancer by 30%. Studies have repeatedly concluded that abortion does not increase the risk of breast cancer, and researchers from the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization and other reputable universities and institutions have refuted the claim.

Care Net’s brochure also claimed that 19% of people who receive an abortion suffer from PTSD. Many pregnancy centers make similar claims, including others in and around the Lehigh Valley. But a large body of scientific evidence exists showing abortion does not increase risk of negative mental health outcomes and that most people do not regret getting an abortion.

A study by the University of California San Francisco showed few people who get an abortion experienced suicidal ideation anxiety or post-traumatic stress afterward; the percentage of those who did was comparable to those of people who carried an unwanted pregnancy to term.

Crisis pregnancy centers often provide necessities such as diapers, formula, car seats, clothes and toys, to new parents, but require parents to participate in programs.

Bright Hope employs an earn-while-you-learn strategy for its “Baby Boutique,” where parents don’t have to pay money for such items.

By attending classes at the center on subjects like early childhood development, parenting or relationships, clients earn Baby Bucks. Merwarth said the classes usually last 30-40 minutes and clients get extra credits for bringing partners.

Life’s Choices has a similar program through which parents who attend classes earn “points” for diapers and baby clothes.

For Care Net’s “store,” participants must do homework and go through hourlong sessions with a coach to earn Mommy and Daddy Dollars.

In addition to classes and coaching sessions, Care Net “pays” participants for attending church, graduating high school or passing their GED.

Critics of pregnancy centers say programs like this lure people in with the promise of free items and then add a catch.

Merwarth said most people enjoy the classes, and if someone is having a crisis Bright Hope will just give them supplies. He said during the shutdowns of the early pandemic, the center made emergency runs to bring diapers, baby formula and other items to homes.

“We tripled the amount of emergency resources we gave out that year. Close to 900 people that year that came to us saying I don’t have any diapers,” Merwarth said.

Still, critics like Murtha disagree with crisis pregnancy centers’ goals and methods. She said she believes they offer nothing that couldn’t be provided in a better setting and have gone unregulated for far too long. She said services should be available to women who wish carry their pregnancies to term but crisis pregnancy centers are not a good example of what those kinds of providers should be.

“There’s virtually no regulation, virtually no accountability,” Murtha said. “There’s a reason why it’s advocates and scholars that have to study CPCs to find out what they’re doing, how they’re targeting pregnant people, what ‘services’ they’re providing.”

Vieknicki makes no apologies for their methods. He said he’s been working with Bright Hope for six to 10 years because they aim to persuade people to not get abortions, continue their pregnancies and choose motherhood. He said as an OBY-GYN he can’t imagine supporting abortion rights.

“You can’t do what I’ve done — delivering thousands of babies, looking at thousands of scans if 10- to 12-week-old babies with arms, legs and faces especially with these new ultrasound machines — and not think that is a person and they are alive,” Viechnicki said.

Morning Call reporter Leif Greiss can be reached at 610-679-4028 or lgreiss@mcall.com.