Almost a year ago, the landmark Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson thrust abortion back into the harsh limelight of American political and cultural life. The Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade, sent dominoes tumbling across the country as states scrambled to either enshrine or dismantle legal access to abortion.
In Minnesota, abortion is legal until the fetus is considered “viable,” a criteria determined by healthcare providers that is usually sometime between 24 and 26 weeks, according to the organization AbortionFinder.org. After viability, abortion is only allowed when it will save a pregnant person’s life or preserve their “general health.”
Although, in Minnesota, the legality of abortion is protected well into the second trimester, access to reproductive care remains a contentious issue. This issue came close to home on April 27 when Carleton’s Students for Reproductive Freedom (SRF) organized a protest of the Northfield Women’s Center (NWC), an organization located only a few blocks from campus.
Protest Against the Northfield Women’s Center
Carleton SRF organizers labeled the NWC a “Crisis Pregnancy Center” (CPC) and a “fake abortion clinic.” In a campus-wide email, they accused NWC of “deceiving people seeking abortion services and providing false medical information” and using “deceptive tactics to manipulate people seeking reproductive healthcare.”
Organizers from Carleton’s SRF gave a statement to the Carletonian about the protest’s intentions and goals, and referred readers to Unrestrict MN for more information on CPCs.
“We at SRF believe that the widespread and unchecked existence of CPCs like the Northfield Women’s Center is unacceptable,” wrote Abby Banks-Hehenberger ’23 on behalf of SRF. “Our goal with the protest was to raise awareness of the presence of these anti-choice forces in Northfield, and to encourage people to support the Reproductive Freedom Codification Act (which would repeal abortion restrictions previously passed by the MN legislature) and the Positive Pregnancies Act (which would prevent CPCs from receiving state funding and redirect those taxpayer dollars to medically licensed services).”
While Unrestrict Minnesota states that CPCs receive over $3 million a year in taxpayer funds, Executive Director of the NWC Theresa Edwards refutes that point: “We do not receive any state funds or federal funds.” Instead, Edwards claims that the organization is entirely supported by private donors.
Members of St. Olaf’s Students for Reproductive Rights (SRR) also attended the protest and distributed pamphlets, alleging that CPCs’ “main goal is to trick, coerce or persuade people to not have an abortion” and that 53% of CPCs give false medical information to prohibit abortions. The pamphlet did not criticize the NWC specifically by name, but rather CPCs in general.
For its part, the NWC website advertises that staff at the NWC are “dedicated to serving you during [an unplanned pregnancy.]” The NWC offers free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, life coaching, mentorship and STI testing. The website does not claim to provide abortions; rather, it overtly opposes them. The website warns against the medical risks of abortion and encourages women considering abortion to “take some time” before making a decision, offering adoption and parenting as alternative options.
Pushback from NWC Staff
In an interview with the Carletonian, Executive Director Edwards, along with two Registered Nurses, Liz B. and Sharon M., disputed activists’ accusations and criticisms. The staff addressed specific criticisms outlined in the St. Olaf SRR’s pamphlet, as well as other criticisms of CPCs they argue do not apply to the NWC.
For one, SRR’s pamphlet alleges that CPCs do not have to abide by HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. This is true in the case of the NWC, but only because HIPAA protects health records for insurance purposes. Since the NWC offers its services for free, it does not interact with insurance companies and therefore is not under the jurisdiction of HIPAA.
However, Edwards maintains that records are kept confidential: “We don’t require any insurance, because all of our services are free,” said Edwards. “So therefore, HIPAA, with regard to insurance and sharing insurance information, is not relevant for us. But are our records kept confidential? Yes, absolutely.”
Edwards also highlighted that the NWC provides the chance for families to receive groceries, diapers, bus passes, gas cards and similar items that aid families raising children. To earn these goods, families partake in an educational program called BrightCourse, which provides lessons about pregnancy, infancy, budgeting and parenting.
Unrestrict Minnesota criticizes these CPC programs, stating “while these goods are advertised as free, they are often conditional on the recipient’s participation in biased ideological programming such as Bible studies, abstinence seminars, and video screenings or classes which often push unscientific medical advice and bigoted anti-LGBTQ messaging.”
The NWC provided the Carletonian with a full list of the courses they offer. However, because the Carletonian does not have access to the courses themselves (which contain more than 80 hours of content), it’s unclear exactly what material is contained in BrightCourses.
Sharon M. also strongly rejected the idea that the NWC is a “fake clinic,” arguing that they operate as any other medical practice. One common criticism of CPCs is that they do not have any certified or qualified medical staff. The NWC, however, has multiple registered nurses that staff the center. They also contract with a perinatologist, a type of obstetrician.
“We have a medical director, [a practicing] perinatologist … who writes standing orders for us to do the specific things that we do here,” said RN Sharon M., “and then, according to those standing orders, take the action. That is how medicine is practiced. I have yet to have one person be able to say to me [what a ‘fake clinic’ is]. What do you mean,‘fake?’ They can’t answer that, because they don’t know. It’s very frustrating as professionals.”
Edwards also discussed the NWC’s non-pregnancy-related services. For example, the NWC provides free testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea. St. Olaf even lists the NWC as a resource for students in need of STI testing.
“We are so much more to our communities than what the average person walking down the streets gives us credit for,” said Edwards. “They have no idea the stories of the people who walk through our doors. Only about 20% are actually in the midst of an unplanned or unexpected pregnancy. The other 80% are just people who need love in our community.”
However, Carleton student Lucy Johnson ’24 pushed back against this idea. She visited the NWC in search of an ultrasound to monitor a non-pregnancy-related health issue. When she showed up to her appointment, however, she was turned away. “They told me, ‘We cannot give you an ultrasound if it’s not pregnancy-related,’” said Johnson, bringing into question the center’s commitment to other women’s health issues.
“We aren’t delaying”
The staff also addressed the accusation that the NWC delays or denies legitimate medical care, including abortion.
“We aren’t delaying,” said RN Sharon M. “[Women] come in here to get information, to get a pregnancy test — then we do a pregnancy test. Now they have that information that day, there’s a medical service, so we’re not delaying anything. In fact, if anything, we did it faster than at the doctor’s office.” Sharon M. said that results from pregnancy tests at the NWC are returned within three to five minutes. She continued on to the topic of ultrasounds, which are also offered at the NWC.
“Do I want to know how far along my pregnancy is? Do I want to confirm that it’s a viable pregnancy? Okay. Let’s schedule an ultrasound,” said Sharon M. “We can do that right here on staff. And it’s an ultrasound that we can send to a medical doctor for them to review. ”
She went on to say that ultrasound results are usually returned within 24 to 48 hours. Planned Parenthood’s website states that ultrasounds “help your doctor find out whether the fetus is developing normally,” and that doctors “might recommend one or more ultrasounds at different points in pregnancy. It can be used to check the anatomy of the fetus for defects or problems.”
Sharon M. continued that ultrasounds are important because they reveal how far along the pregnancy is through measurements of the fetus and determine its viability. She disagreed with the idea that the NWC used pregnancy tests and ultrasounds to delay or eliminate the possibility of abortion.
“[An unplanned pregnancy] is very serious [and] very overwhelming, and you can rush into a decision and action that maybe you later regret… if you take a breath, slow down, think about it for a day or two, sometimes we make better decisions or different decisions,” said Sharon M. “Many women who choose abortion, I’ll tell you, are being pressured … to do so by parents, by boyfriends, by abusive relationships. And so we’re here to help them say, ‘slow down’ … And if it delays them getting an abortion a day or two — first of all, they don’t call here for an abortion — and if they do, we clearly tell them we do not do abortions. So if they come in, and they’re considering abortion, and we say ‘hey, give yourself the time’ … that’s not going to affect whether or not they are able to get an abortion.”
If someone does decide to get an abortion, that procedure would be done outside the NWC. Liz B. spoke to what happens in that scenario: “It’s their decision,” said Liz B. “If they are determined that they want to have an abortion, we’re going to refer them to their medical doctor because that’s the person who knows.”
Near the end of the interview, Sharon M. shared a lengthy but illustrative anecdote that explains the delaying effect the NWC had on one couple who were considering abortion after an unplanned pregnancy:
“A number of years ago, a high school couple came into the center. The mom wanted a pregnancy test to confirm she was pregnant. And they were planning that if she were pregnant, they were going to have an abortion,” explained Sharon M. “We did the pregnancy test, and it was positive, and they had questions about, you know, how far along am I? … At that stage of the pregnancy, we were able to determine [that] she was at a point in development when there’s some measurable brainwave activity. I shared that piece of information with them because that’s … honest information that helps them make an informed decision. And when the father learned that, [it] was very disturbing to him. And they came back a couple of days later, and they said: ‘We can’t. We’ve discussed it. We can’t [have an abortion].’ So they [went on] … to college, they got married, they have degrees, they even have another child now. That’s just one example. So was it wrong for us to delay her potentially getting … an abortion? When we just gave her accurate information, what would be wrong with that? How is that being deceptive?”
Northfield Women’s Center is an anti-choice establishment that should not be advertised as a medical facility. It’s a “center” and not a “clinic” for a reason. This rhetoric is dangerous for students and people who are actually seeking medical and reproductive care. The services they are offering are not “faster” than at a doctor’s office… it’s a pregnancy test (medical grade pregnancy tests do not exist!!!). And YES it is wrong to delay someone from getting an abortion. That “anecdote” is literally the definition of deception.
“She disagreed with the idea that the NWC used pregnancy tests and ultrasounds to delay or eliminate the possibility of abortion. ”
“We did the pregnancy test, and it was positive, and they had questions about, you know, how far along am I? … At that stage of the pregnancy, we were able to determine [that] she was at a point in development when there’s some measurable brainwave activity. I shared that piece of information with them because that’s … honest information that helps them make an informed decision. And when the father learned that, [it] was very disturbing to him.
These seem to be hypocritical statements…
Also, it’s not the father’s decision.
I understood this to be a neutral piece that was coming out, but this is far from neutral and potentially dangerous.