Each semester, an advertising company called The Campus Special produces a coupon booklet for students at the University of Montana. Included in the booklet are deals on stuffed crust pizza, oil changes and yoga classes. In recent years, there's also been a coupon for a free pregnancy test "and/or" ultrasound. The coupon depicts a forlorn-looking woman and the words, "Freedom. Knowledge. Empowerment." The coupon is redeemable at the Care Net Pregnancy Support Center of Missoula, and also advertises peer mentors, community referrals and confidential support. It's this coupon, and advertising like it, that members of UM's pro-choice movement say should be banned from campus.
NARAL Pro-Choice Montana Campus Organizer Emily Likins says that Care Net's advertising is "manipulative and untruthful." She says that organizations like Care Net are cropping up all over the country as part of a pro-life—or anti-choice—movement "to misinform and mislead women seeking abortion care."
"They offer free pregnancy tests to get women in the door," says Likins, "and then they intentionally fill their heads with misleading information about their options."
Administrators at Care Net declined to comment for this story, and pointed to their website for more information about the center. The "About Us" page says that Care Net, which is located on Fairview Avenue inside the City Life Community Center, was founded in 1978 and "has grown from three small counseling offices to a medical clinic with counseling rooms, an exam room, meeting room, clothing room and staff offices." It continues: "Care Net of Missoula endeavors to remain one of western Montana's foremost authorities on abortion issues, adoption information, and agency referrals."
There is no indication of whether or not Care Net staff are medical professionals. "Care Net of Missoula carries out its mission by employing volunteer advocates and relying on private funds for operation," the website reads. Though the website also states, "We do not offer, recommend or refer for abortions...," the "title" that appears on the center's homepage reads: "abortion info: abortion pill, free abortions, free pregnancy tests."
Julie Mullette, a registered nurse and the abortion care coordinator at Blue Mountain Clinic, feels Care Net often does more harm than good, and is potentially "dangerous." She says "it is not an anomaly" for clients to come to Blue Mountain after first going to Care Net. She says often times those clients are misinformed about the dating of their pregnancy. "Some women have the perception that Care Net is a medical facility with a medically trained staff," she says. "But really their whole reason for existence is to prevent women from having abortions."
One woman, who works as a social worker at Missoula-area hospital, says she went to Care Net after finding out she was pregnant. She requested anonymity due to her current position in the health care industry. "I heard they had free ultrasounds," she says, "and I didn't have insurance [at the time] so it would be extremely expensive to date my pregnancy."
The social worker, who already had three children, remembers the examination was unlike any she had ever had. She says the staff member asked her to insert the ultrasound probe herself. She also remembers the ultrasound monitor was a giant flat screen TV positioned so that "there was no choice whether or not to see." She says the staffer dated the fetus at six weeks and then repeatedly referred to it as "little guy" and "little man" (she later gave birth to a girl). "It was a much different experience than any of my other three pregnancies. I was pretty sure six weeks was way too early to tell the sex," she says. "It felt weird."
At one point during the examination she remembers the staff member began crying and asked if she could pray. "They have you do this counseling piece, which I was a little bit ambivalent about it," she says. "But then she starts crying. I didn't get a lot of my questions answered because she was crying."
The social worker says she would never go back to Care Net, feeling that overall the care she received was "extremely unprofessional."
Likins contends that Care Net is more than unprofessional. She feels the organization is intentionally deceptive. She notes that on the website under a page titled "Abortion Recovery," Care Net expounds on the connection between abortion and breast cancer. Likins points out that Care Net cites studies from the '70s and '80s that have since been refuted by the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, among others, over the last decade.
This spring, NARAL Pro-Choice Montana plans to lobby the Associated Students of the University of Montana to pass a "truth in advertising" mandate on campus. Though NARAL has not yet drafted specific language, the mandate would aim to regulate the way advertisers present their businesses to students.
But for Likins and NARAL, the issue is bigger than information disseminated through coupons. "The anti-choice movement has built a network of generally unlicensed and unregulated organizations posing as comprehensive health care clinics," she says. "We're aiming to expose them."