Babies & Bibles

At Glendale’s Avenues Pregnancy Clinic, women go in for a pregnancy test and come out fearing eternal damnation

By Tina Dupuy 04/16/2009

I’m sitting in a generic-looking clinic waiting room. The space is clean. Empty. Quiet. The all-purpose art on the walls matches the neutral-colored couches. A receptionist at the office window, a 30-something brunette clad in scrubs and a sensible cardigan, sits at a desk and appears busy.It looks like any doctor’s office. Totally normal.

I’m filling out a form. It’s only two pages long and doesn’t ask the usual personal and medical information. One page asks for my name, contact info, date of birth and date of my last period. The other is a disclosure form. It notifies me that the people I’m about to talk to do not have psychological degrees and have not gone to medical school. The volunteers, the form says, should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Oh, and the pregnancy test I’m about to take, the form tells me, should not be considered a clinical diagnosis.

I’m at Avenues in Glendale, which — despite all the above disclaimers — styles itself a “pregnancy clinic.”

I’ve come to Avenues Pregnancy Clinic, located on West Glenoaks Boulevard, to do some undercover investigating after hearing a bizarre story from a friend.

Maggie, as we’ll call her, is 23 years old. She’s what I call a yoga twinkie (not to her face): sweet, open-minded and sometimes naïve. Maggie just moved in with her new boyfriend. It’s the first time she’s lived with anyone. She’s elated, she’s in love, and now she’s late. Just by a couple of days, but she’s worried. Maggie is proudly paying her own way through college. There’s a sign in a medical office complex on the way home from her job touting “Free Pregnancy Test.”

So she goes. To her relief, her test comes back negative. To her surprise, she’s kept in what she describes as a backroom, where several women, dressed as nurses, want to speak with her about her life decisions. Maggie is far too polite to try to leave or question her detention.

The women talk to her about “living in sin.” They ask her if she believes in God. Yeah, sure, she tells them, she believes in God (and Allah and Buddha and the Master Cleanse). After two-and-a-half hours the nurses ask Maggie if she would like to give her life to Jesus Christ and pray with them. Maggie is blindsided. All she wanted was to know if she was pregnant.

She leaves with a Bible and an existential crisis. “They were so convincing; they said all this stuff,” Maggie tells me, in tears, after her ordeal. “I don’t know. Is it wrong that I’m living with Mike?”

Her voice seems earnestly stressed about the answer.

“Tina, do you think I’m going to hell?”

Avenues is a California primary clinic, fully licensed and accredited by the state. So exactly what kind of medical facility lures women with the promise of free pregnancy tests and leaves them fearing eternal damnation?

The mission statement on Avenues’ Web site reads, “Avenues Pregnancy Clinic is a Christ-centered ministry dedicated to affirming the value of life. Our mission is to provide a network of care to those experiencing pregnancy-related crisis and compassionately presenting Biblical truth resulting in changed lives to the glory of God.”

According to their site, Avenues has been “presenting Biblical truth” to women since 1988. And no, this is not Honduras. This is not even Arkansas. This is Los Angeles County.

A 2006 article in The New York Times says there are anywhere from 2,300 to 3,500 of these religious-themed clinics, often referred to as “crisis pregnancy centers,” nationwide, compared with around 1,800 abortion providers. Planned Parenthood has 15 clinics in the LA area. LifeCall.org, a pro-life resource Web site, mentions 25 or more centers in the same area.

Typically, as is the case with Avenues, the religious intentions of these clinics-in-name-only aren’t publicly displayed on their sign or even on their disclosure forms. They intentionally camouflage themselves to look like medical facilities, following the advice of Robert Pearson, who — after Hawaii decriminalized abortion in 1967 — started the first crisis pregnancy center in Honolulu to combat it. The Pearson Foundation Manual, “How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center,” published in 1984, is still used today as a blueprint. Pearson writes, “Obviously, we’re fighting Satan. A killer, who in this case is the girl who wants to kill her baby, has no right to information that will help her kill her baby.”

The camouflage is still used, even today.

“I thought I was at a medical clinic,” recalls Judy, a gruff 43-year-old mother of one, who mistakenly went into Avenues because it’s adjacent to her general practitioner’s office. “I told them the same dialogue I was going to tell my doctor.”

Judy was pregnant. The volunteers at Avenues put her in the backroom and told her if she had an abortion she would have problems “getting into heaven.” Judy had already had an abortion 20 years ago. A recovering drug addict, Judy was afraid that if she had another child she could “revert back to addiction” as she did when her 9-year-old was born.

“I was vulnerable,” she says. “I was falling apart.”

Like Maggie, Judy was kept there for two hours. “I heard that I was going to hell and that I was fucked,” she remembers. They hooked her up to the ultrasound to “see the heartbeat,” a procedure that Chicago-based gynecologist and author Dr. Michael Applebaum describes as both unnecessary and even irresponsible. “It’s not an emergency to have an ultrasound immediately,” he says, adding that “medical tests shouldn’t be performed without a reason.”

Judy describes her visit to Avenues as a trip into “The Twilight Zone.” A week later she found an actual women’s clinic and terminated her pregnancy, a decision she says that she is happy with. But her detour to Avenues still haunts her.

“I don’t like what I went through,” she says. “Bizarre is putting it lightly. It’s like I slipped into hell for a minute.

[What they do in Avenues] just doesn’t go with the face of the physical place. It was a horrible experience — just manipulative. Deceptive! That’s what I feel — deceived.”

In the waiting room, I write my drag queen name (favorite pet plus street I grew up on), “Sasha Collins,” on the form. I’m/she is four days late.

A woman in scrubs calls out my name and leads me through the halls to the backroom that Maggie described. There’s a desk, more generic office artwork, some literature and a chair I plop down on. I appear to be the only client in the building that day.

A sturdy woman with shaggy blond hair who will later give me her card with the name Melissa Knox, RN, comes in. She sits down and shuffles through her official-looking paperwork.

“Have you given any thoughts to what you’re going to do if you’re pregnant?” she asks. I say I don’t know. I tell her I have no money, and my boyfriend I was living with just left me.

“Isn’t there, like, a pill or something I can take?” I ask.

“There is. It’s called RU486. But you can only take it if you are less than three weeks pregnant.”

From the information I gave her, I would be around three weeks pregnant, maybe less.

She grabs a chart and shows me. “Since your last period was on this date, if you’re pregnant, you’re at least five weeks along right now.”

“Really?” I ask, peering closer at the chart. “Oh my God!” I say, pretending to be shocked, but simultaneously actually shocked.

“Yeah, isn’t that weird how that works,” she offers.
Indeed.

“Plus,” she says matter-of-factly, “the FDA is under investigation for RU486. They’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

“Wow! Really?” I play along. Just who investigates the FDA? I wonder, but never ask.

“OK, we’re going to give you a urine test to see if you’re pregnant. Now if you are …” she pauses dramatically, “we have to give you an ultrasound, kay? We do that, kay, to see if the fetus is viable. Thirty percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriages, so we need to know what’s going on, kay?”

She hands me another disclosure form, this one stating that the ultrasound is also not a clinical diagnosis. Basically contradicting what she just said.

Dr. Applebaum says that not as many pregnancies end in miscarriage as Melissa claimed. And RU486? It’s called Mifepristone in this country, and most guidelines state that a woman can take it up to two months after their last period.

I pee into a cup. In the room where I drop it off is the massive ultrasound machine. It is the only medical equipment in the place. I was expecting to see at least a tongue depressor.

A couple of minutes later Melissa enters the backroom I’m in. “OK, your pregnancy test came back negative.”

“Awesome!” I bleat. “What a relief!”

Melissa sits down at her desk and abruptly launches into her personal story. “I am a very sexual person,” she informs me, “but you know latex allows viruses to seep through.”

Latex? The same material surgical gloves are made out of? Viruses seeping through?!

Then Melissa announces she personally has forgone sex for the past eight years.

“My God! How do you do that?”

I ask.
“With God,” she responds. “I pray … a lot.”

Why not be candid? Why not give accurate medical facts? Why mask the religious intention? Why all the sneakiness? Isn’t this a classic bait and switch? Go in for a root canal and come out with fire insurance? Isn’t this fraud?

“I would be curious to know what kind of medical license allows a clinic to NOT offer health care,” says Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, D-NY.

In 2006, Maloney sponsored HR 5052, the Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women’s Services Act. “We have to protect the First Amendment,” she tells me by email. “We can’t clamp down on the honest opinions of those who disagree with those of us who are pro-choice. What we CAN do is what my bill does, which is clamp down on those who advertise with intent to deceive, and empower the [Federal Trade Commission] to enforce such a provision.”

The bill would have outlawed these fake clinics. It was co-sponsored by 46 members of Congress, including Rahm Emanuel, now President Obama’s chief of staff, and Hilda Solis, now the Secretary of Labor. However, the bill died in committee.

“Marketing should be 100 percent truthful,” says Dan Steiner, president of Avenues, when reached by phone.
Is Avenues 100 percent truthful? Says Steiner, “Absolutely.”

Mission Pre-Born (MP), is Steiner’s broad nonprofit. Its stewardship guidelines read, “Full disclosure [walking in the light] is our practice.” His “vision” is to bring more “fully disclosed” crisis pregnancy centers to LA County in what he likes to call the “Miracle Campaign.”

However, when asked about the cryptic forms that state that none of the tests should be considered a clinical diagnosis, Steiner responds, “I’m not aware of the form.”

Steiner, who could be entered in a Ross Perot look-alike contest, explains Avenues tactics and hopes for a new clinic in Hollywood on a fundraising video on the MP Web site: “This is the front door of Los Angeles City College. All the students come out here and if they have a suspicion that they have an unplanned pregnancy, day after day they will see our sign, ‘Free Pregnancy Test,’ right across the street. They’ll see it before they see Planned Parenthood; they’ll see it before they see the abortion clinic. Then they walk out and there it will be and BANG!” He slaps his hands together. “We’ve captured that woman before the abortionist does!”
Bang? We’ve captured that woman?

“Capture their attention,” Steiner attempts to clarify. Minutes later the video is taken down from the Web.

“Captured is a good word,” says Joyce Schorr, president and founder of Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project, or WRRAP. “They have to capture you because what they do is not aboveboard.

“To not say who you really are is to have an illegal front,” continues Schorr. “[Avenues and clinics like it] continue to be effective because there is no public outcry, because people don’t care.”

But that’s not the only reason.

This common kind of deceit in women’s health care has its allies. Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D.

Antonovich, arguably one of the most powerful men in California, is listed on Avenues’ advisory board. He oddly omits the affiliation with the clinic from his bio on his Web site. When asked about this, Antonovich’s press secretary Tony Bell says curtly, “We certainly can add that.”

As to whether the supervisor is aware of the misleading practices done by an organization he’s advising, Bell simply states, “He supports the mission.”

In the backroom, Melissa tells me about all the reasons I should never have intercourse. “Every woman, when she has sex, gives away a little piece of her heart,” she says, then hands me a fistful of abstinence literature.

We chitchat a bit more before Melissa finally stands up, indicating I can go. She escorts me to the back door and hands me a flyer to see her band play the following week. I wonder why I didn’t get a Bible.

The receptionist in the office is there to see me off.

“We had another clinic in Hollywood,” she informs me on my way out. “We’re trying to get back there again because we’re so badly needed there.” I nod and walk out the door.

What could possibly be so badly needed? I just spent nearly two hours of my time to get an admittedly unreliable pregnancy test, erroneous medical information and find out more than I ever wanted to know about the life of a sexless 35-year-old bass player.

This is a licensed medical clinic.

It’s usually safe to assume that medical clinics provide medical care. But if you have the capacity to bear children, those rules apparently don’t apply. If a cancer clinic were run as a Christian Scientist front there would be anger.

There would be disgust. It would be shut down. But the distraught woman in dire circumstances — “a killer who in this case is the girl” — being routinely defrauded because she “has no right to information” has gone unnoticed by the general public.

As I walk down the street back to my car, I glance at one of the abstinence flyers Melissa gave me during her oversharing session.

“True love,” it says, “protects 100 percent of the time.”

This story originally appeared in Pasadena Weekly.