Denyce Sheets, a genial and matronly nurse with buoyant hair the color of wet sand, puts her hand against a computer monitor where a grainy image glows night-vision blue.
“Have you ever seen an ultrasound?” she asks reverently. “I can’t deny what I see. I see it over and over.”
What does she see?
“I see a baby. I think this baby on the screen is about 18 weeks. You can see the trunk, arms, legs … and here are the little knees.” Patients here at J. Rophe Medical, she says, can “watch the baby suck its thumb and practically wave ‘hi.’ It’s phenomenal to me. It blows my mind over and over.”
J. Rophe Medical, the offspring of the 20-year-old Pregnancy Care Center of the North Coast, was licensed three years ago by the State of California to operate as a primary care facility, though its services are limited to pregnancy tests, obstetric ultrasounds and pregnancy options counseling. Here’s the clinic’s commercial:
Located between a chiropractor’s office and a diagnostic lab in the heart of Eureka’s medical district, the nondescript clinic has a sign out front advertising its no-cost services. Free care isn’t the only thing that differentiates J. Rophe Medical from other clinics. Its name offers a hint at the fundamental objectives: J. Rophe isn’t the supervising physician or resident doctor; it stands for Jehovah Rophe, a name God takes in the book of Exodus.
Alternately spelled Jehovah Rofi, Jehovah Rapha and Yahweh Raphah, the name is typically interpreted as “the God who heals.” (In the preceding verses, ironically, this same God brings down 10 plagues on the people of Egypt, covering their skin with boils, turning rivers to blood and killing their firstborn children. But we digress.)
J. Rophe Medical, like the Pregnancy Care Center before it, has staked out a firm ideological position on one of the most polarizing issues in American culture: abortion. While their website, signs and advertisements don’t say so explicitly, the clinic’s services are delivered with a Christian, pro-life agenda that reveals itself in the materials and care offered patients.
The clinic is one of many across the country affiliated with Care Net, a nonprofit umbrella organization for anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers,” as well as the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), which provides legal advice to such centers. There have been several legal and legislative challenges to crisis pregnancy centers, largely focused on deceptive advertising practices and false medical information. As of last year, crisis pregnancy centers outnumbered abortion providers in the U.S. roughly 2,500 to 1,800.
J. Rophe Medical and Pregnancy Care Center of the North Coast are funded through community donations and fundraisers. (The organizers of next month’s Humboldt County Mud Run, an athletic endurance event, will donate proceeds to the organizations.) In January 2012 the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unanimously honored the partner organizations with a resolution praising their “life-affirming impact” and lauding them for giving women “complete and accurate information regarding their pregnancy options and the development of their unborn children.”
There’s not much middle ground in the abortion debate. People’s opinions are influenced by their upbringing, peer groups, politics, spiritual beliefs and ethical convictions. (Disclosure: Your correspondent is pro-choice and previously volunteered for Six Rivers Planned Parenthood.) Those on both sides can (and do) argue that science is on their side, and passions on the matter run so deep, given the primal underlying issues (pregnancy, self determination, the definition of life itself), that it can be tempting to manipulate or misrepresent scientific findings to conform to our beliefs.
While the Pregnancy Care Center and J. Rophe Medical take a firm, religiously based stance on the issue, the organizations also enjoy a great deal of community goodwill, as the Outpost learned after asking for feedback on Facebook. The vast majority of comments were glowing:
However, a few women were critical of the organization’s approach. For example:
The Pregnancy Care Center still offers resources such as maternity clothes, baby clothes and more in exchange for credits, and it offers free classes on pregnancy, parenting and life skills. Prior to the establishment of J. Rophe Medical, pregnancy options counseling took place at the Pregnancy Care Center, which was originally located in Arcata and called the Crisis Pregnancy Center.
Tisha Stone Sloan, of Blue Lake, went in a few years after the center opened. She remembers being asked if she had accepted Jesus Christ as her personal lord and savior. “I think my answer was, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever,’” Stone recalled. She already knew she was pregnant and that she would keep it, but she still felt a degree of moral judgment. “If you’re at all pro-choice it would probably be a very difficult encounter,” she said.
Cindy Broese Van Groenou, the executive director of both organizations, recently sat down in her office at J. Rophe Medical to discuss the clinic’s mission and methods. Warm and polite, she said her organizations offer an alternative for women who don’t feel comfortable going to Planned Parenthood.
A cork-board in her office was nearly covered in black-and-white ultrasound images — her grandkids, she said proudly. A shelf along one wall held a pair of pink sculptures atop metal rods stuck on pedestals. Shaped vaguely like manta rays in mid-swim, each plastic model represented a woman’s uterus at different months of pregnancy, bisected horizontally to reveal a small embryo nestled inside.
And on the wall behind Broese Van Groenou was a framed certificate from the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates for participation in “The Life Choice Project,” a campaign launched in the late 1990s to help crisis pregnancy centers “complete the difficult process of converting to medical clinic status.” Giving women free pregnancy tests and showing them ultrasound images “empowers mothers to choose life,” NIFLA boasts.
All of the employees and volunteers at the Pregnancy Care Center and J. Rophe Medical are Christian, as are the affiliate organizations, such as Care Net, that provide its informational materials and organizational support. Originally called Christian Action Council, Care Net was founded in the wake of Roe v. Wade in an explicit attempt to persuade women not to have abortions.
And yet Broese Van Groenou insists that that’s not the purpose of J. Rophe Medical. ”The purpose of our organization is to offer compassion, direction and help to those who are facing life decisions,” she said. “That’s our mission statement. Basically it’s informed choice. … We are committed to giving accurate information.” That’s what the Board of Supervisors said — complete and accurate information.
However, a close look at the information supplied to patients shows that their devotion to exhaustive data is disproportionately focused on the negative side effects of abortion, largely ignoring or glossing over the potential downsides of pregnancy and childbirth. Through its website and various materials, J. Rophe Medical portrays abortion as a minefield of devastating physical, mental and even spiritual consequences. A pamphlet called “Before You Decide” is aimed at women and girls who are pregnant and unsure what to do. Produced by Care Net, the glossy booklet is filled with loaded language, dubious medical claims and selective information.
For example, it claims that abortion may increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, a theory that surfaced in the 1980s and was long ago discredited by major medical bodies including the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The pamphlet also claims that the emergency contraceptive Plan B may increase the risk of ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, though studies have shown that the opposite is true. Ectopic pregnancy also gets an ominous mention in a section on ella, another emergency contraception medication, even though that drug doesn’t increase the risk either.
The footnotes in much of the materials distributed at J. Rophe Medical tend to cite a small, recurring group of outdated studies that have been largely rejected by the scientific community. Two frequent sources are Vincent Rue and David Reardon. Rue is a psychotherapist and avid anti-abortion activist whose “research has repeatedly been discredited by major medical research institutions” according to a recent MSNBC story. Reardon, another pro-life activist, is the founder and director of the Elliott Institute, which was described by USA Today as an “anti-abortion organization focusing on the physical and psychological effects of abortion.” Reardon’s Ph.D in biomedical ethics was awarded by an unaccredited correspondence school.
A 2004 Washington Monthly story profiled this trend of cherry-picking and manufacturing data, concluding that, “All told, Christian conservatives have gone a long way towards creating their own scientific counter-establishment.”
Local family practitioner Dr. Scott Sattler said his favorite term for this practice is “biased, agenda-driven science,” which can be shortened to the acronym “BAD science.”
“It’s what every scientist is taught to be on guard for” he said, “the coloration of the interpretation of the data based upon their desire to have it work. It is the antithesis of the scientific method.”
Sattler, a bearded Buddha of a man, was among the first doctors in Humboldt County to perform abortions. Starting in the mid 1970s he offered abortion services — as a county employee, no less — to women in Hoopa for several years before getting hired as a family practitioner by Eureka Family Practice in 1982. He continued providing abortions for several years at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Eureka. He went on to become the chief of staff at the Catholic St. Joseph Hospital (over objections from some of the more conservative patients in the area).
Raised Presbyterian in the Midwest, Sattler said he struggled to figure out his own opinion on abortion. “I had to do some homework,” he said. After researching the medical issues and considering his wife and two daughters, Sattler arrived at the position that he continues to advocate strongly to this day.
“The bottom line is to be of love,” he said. “That’s the only rule in life. And what is the loving thing to do if a woman really doesn’t want to be pregnant and you can help her terminate her pregnancy simply, with a procedure that is one of the safest medical procedures that exist?”
Pro-life advocates say this is destroying a human life — or even a “baby.” Materials on fetal development at J. Rophe Medical refer to a single-celled zygote as a baby, a medically inaccurate term that’s repeated for all subsequent stages of embryonic and fetal development.
Like other materials offered at the clinic, the “Before You Decide” pamphlet refers to emergency contraception, aka “the morning after pill,” as an abortifacient — that is, something that causes an abortion. This has long been a controversial claim at best, with most medical professionals saying the pill works by preventing pregnancy, rather than terminating it. (This debate featured in the recent Supreme Court case of Hobby Lobby v. Burwell.) The Care Net pamphlet cites as its source this 2000 study by Dr. Walter L. Larimore, a Christian author and activist who served as the physician in residence for Focus on the Family, James Dobson’s evangelical nonprofit. And yet, even with this sympathetic source, the Care Net pamphlet misrepresents Dr. Larimore’s findings.
The booklet treats the abortifacient debate as settled in the affirmative, citing Larimore’s research as justification, but Larimore himself doesn’t go that far. (He does, however, refer to fetuses as “pre-born children” and closes his study with a Bible quote.) In his conclusion Larimore says that calling emergency contraception an abortifacient is controversial at best, adding that it appears “theoretically possible (even probable) that research could be done to begin to settle the controversy… .”
As it happens, such research has been done in subsequent years. These more recent studies have shown that emergency contraception does indeed prevent pregnancies rather than terminate them.
Nearly half the pamphlet — 12 full pages — is spent laying out an intimidating list of abortion’s effects, side-effects and after-effects in graphic detail and varying degrees of plausibility. The litany includes “severe bleeding,” “total body infection,” “tube bursting,” “internal hemorrhage,” “birth defects,” “liver toxicity and cancer,” “convulsions, heart complications and death.”
The description of the abortion procedure itself reads like a sequence from a torture porn movie — something along the lines of The Human Centipede: “The cervix and/or uterus may be cut, torn or punctured by abortion instruments. … Curettes and other abortion instruments may cause permanent scarring of the uterine lining. … major surgery may be required … . damage may occur to nearby organs such as the bowel and bladder.”
Even if a woman manages to survive this gauntlet, her pain and suffering likely won’t end, the pamphlet warns. Psychological and emotional repercussions await. Women who have experienced abortions, it says, may spiral into depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse and/or eating disorders. They could very well develop post-traumatic stress disorder (or “Post Abortion Syndrome,” a term coined by Vincent Rue used in other pamphlets) and wind up contemplating suicide. Alas, even death may offer no escape:
“Have you considered what God thinks about your situation?” the pamphlet asks. “How does God see your unborn child?”
Another pamphlet, written by David Reardon, explores the so-called “Post Abortion Syndrome.” It compares the abortion procedure to rape and features quotes attributed to women’s first names. These testimonials describe a post-abortion life filled with nightmares and confusion, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, an inability to hold a job, feelings of total isolation and thoughts of suicide. “I just laid in bed and cried,” reads one quote testimonial. Another says, “I truly felt like the abortionist ripped out my heart and soul. It was a pain so heavy … . I overdosed on pills more than once.”
All in all, J. Rophe Medical’s glossy brochures offer a more vivid depiction of damnation than any passage in the Bible, and these materials are the default hand-outs for women struggling with ambivalence and doubt.
The truth is that emotional responses to abortion vary widely and are influenced by preexisting beliefs and social factors. But the intense psychological devastation described by J. Rophe Medical’s materials is rare. Dr. Sattler said that, among his abortion patients, “the dominant experience was [a feeling] of tremendous relief.”
Despite years of effort on the part of pro-life activists, “post-abortion syndrome” is not recognized as an actual syndrome by any medical or psychological organization. In 2008 the American Psychological Association conducted a wide-ranging review of the medical research on abortion. Its report (pdf here) found: “The best scientific evidence published indicates that among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy the relative risk of mental health problems is no greater if they have a single elective first-trimester abortion than if they deliver that pregnancy.”
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan ordered his surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, who was himself personally opposed to abortion, to prepare a report saying that abortion harms women psychologically. After reviewing more than 250 studies, Koop wrote a letter to Reagan saying, “scientific studies do not provide conclusive data about the health effects of abortion on women.”
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the American College of Physicians and the British Royal College of Psychiatrists have all examined the evidence and found that abortion does not increase a woman’s risk of mental health problems.
“I absolutely disagree,” Broese Van Groenou said. “Because I see the women. When I go and speak in a group, there’s never a time when someone doesn’t come up to me, and they’re torn apart. I see it.”
Cindy Broese Van Groenou and her husband, Andy (right), helped to organize the local “40 Days of Life” vigil at the entrance to Six Rivers Planned Parenthood last year.
For Broese Van Groenou the issue is personal. “I had an abortion when I was 16,” she said. “At the time, I felt it was the best decision for me.” Last year, while participating in the “40 Days for Life” protest/vigil at the entrance to Six Rivers Planned Parenthood, Broese Van Groenou told the Times-Standard that when she found out she was pregnant she was afraid she would bring shame on her family.
“And even though I chose abortion, it was still a pregnancy loss, and I still regret it all these years later,” she told the T-S. “You never get over that.”
She also wrote about her experience in a 2010 opinion piece for the Times-Standard. ”One of the the reasons I work in this organization is that when I was a teenager, I became pregnant,” she wrote. “I went to a ‘Free Clinic’ and the only two things I was told was, ‘It’s just a blob of tissue’ and ‘We can get you an abortion without your parents knowing about it.’ Not much has changed since then.”
That’s not an accurate description of the care provided at the local Planned Parenthood, according to Tia Baratelle, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Northern California, the regional affiliate that recently took over the health center previously managed by Six Rivers Planned Parenthood.
“When talking to a woman about her pregnancy options staff and volunteers are trained to follow the lead of the patient and use the language with which she is most comfortable and is medically accurate,” Baratelle said in a statement to the Outpost. “Ultimately, decisions about whether to choose adoption, end a pregnancy, or continue her pregnancy must be left to a woman, her family, and her faith, with the counsel of her doctor or health care provider.”
Broese Van Groenou insists that the materials and advice offered at J. Rophe Medical are strictly informational. “We don’t do scare tactics or intimidation,” she said. ”What happened with my situation was that I wasn’t given all of the information to make an informed choice.”
The fact, though, is that abortion is one of the safest and simplest medical procedures. On average it takes between seven and 15 minutes and is safer than getting your wisdom teeth pulled. A woman’s risk of death from an abortion performed at or before the eighth week of pregnancy is literally less than one in a million. The risk increases dramatically with the length of pregnancy, reaching one death per 11,000 at 21 weeks or later, a rate comparable to getting a tonsillectomy. (No clinic in Humboldt County performs abortions later than 13 weeks, six days.) These rare deaths tend to follow embolism, infection, hemorrhaging or adverse reactions to anesthesia.
As for those horrific side effects described in the Care Net pamphlet, they range from rare to completely unfounded (liver cancer, for example). Complications serious enough to require hospital care occur in less than half of one percent of abortions.
Giving birth is actually far riskier than having an abortion.
Source: “The Comparative Safety of Legal Induced Abortion and Childbirth in the United States,” Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Feb. 2012.
“Being pregnant is one of the most dangerous things that a woman can do,” Dr. Sattler said. “The fact that women choose to do that, to put their body and their health at risk and to make changes happen in their bodies that are there the rest of their lives — the varicose veins, the stretched skin, all the things that go with it — is an awesome sacrifice. But it has to be done willingly.”
Image from StandUpGirl, an abortion-related website linked from the Pregnancy Care Center page.
According to federal statistics, the risk of death associated with childbirth is about 14 times higher than with abortion. And yet the dangers of childbirth aren’t even mentioned in the “Before You Decide” pamphlet. Nor do they appear anywhere on the Pregnancy Care Center website, which is littered with scary abortion claims and links to anti-abortion websites.
While there is no such thing as “post-abortion syndrome” according to the American Psychological Association, postpartum depression has been well documented.
“Can you imagine the postpartum depression for a woman who’s been forced to have a child she didn’t want?” Dr. Sattler asked. “Which is also the ultimate in child abuse — it really is.”
Asked why her clinic doesn’t offer side-by-side comparisons of the risks of abortion versus childbirth, Broese Van Groenou came up short. “I’ll have to think about that question,” she said, “because that’s not been something that anybody’s ever asked us.”
J. Rophe Medical and the Pregnancy Care Center use the same coercive techniques when it comes to sex education, pushing for abstinence-only by highlighting the risks of sexual activity.
A pamphlet called “The Condom,” for example, boldly states on its front fold, “You may think that condoms make sex safer, but research shows that’s not the case.” In fact, research shows that’s very much the case. Open the brochure and you can learn all about the symptoms of genital herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea and AIDS but will find nothing about the proper way to use a condom.
In the past the Pregnancy Care Center has handed out literature to teenagers at events such as the Eureka High Student Wellness Fair. A newspaper-style handout from 2008 called lovematters.com printed blatant, even laughable untruths. For example:
Another pamphlet, called “What Guys Don’t Know About Sex,” says, “The truth is, [condoms] are about as safe as hanging over a cliff with a frayed rope.”
That paralyzing image is part of the larger effort to advocate abstinence before marriage. Another pamphlet aimed at teenagers says, “Giving or taking sex in the name of love is a deception. … Sex outside of marriage is a dead end. The road is scattered with broken hearts and broken lives of those couples gone before.”
While Broese Van Groenou didn’t recall these specific materials — at any rate, she said, they’re no longer used locally — she did say that J. Rophe Medical and the Pregnancy Care Center stand behind the medical accuracy of everything they hand out. Regarding the specific claim about condoms being riddled with voids she held firm.
“I have seen that on an information card — microscopic holes where an AIDS virus can get through but sperm can’t,” she said.
That, of course, is completely false.
When it’s too late for abstinence-only, J. Rophe Medical employees may try to convince women to marry the men who impregnated them, according to Anna, a woman who visited the clinic last year for an ultrasound. (She asked that her real name not be used; Anna is a pseudonym.)
“They did not like the fact that I wasn’t married,” she told the Outpost. During a follow-up counseling session an employee started asking her about the father — whether he was employed, what his education level was and so on. “I guess they were a little aggressive in trying to get me to marry the child’s father,” Anna said.
But she didn’t want to marry him. He had substance abuse problems and she didn’t trust him. Later in her pregnancy, she said, he started stalking her and once approached her with a knife. She has since moved out of state, in part to get away from him (hence the request for anonymity).
Anna is pro-life (her daughter just turned 1) and she had an idea about what to expect before going in to J. Rophe Medical. “I knew it was a pro-life place, and I expected to get some lecturing,” she said. “Honestly I was expecting a lot worse.”
But Anna is not convinced that the clinic’s bias is obvious enough. “If I was a pregnant teenager it might take me a while to figure out,” she said.
In the interim, pregnant teenagers can learn about the wide variety of ways that abortion can make their lives a living hell.