Iowa doctors explain dangers of anti-abortion centers

The crowd at the Capitol for the July special session to ban abortion

By Nikoel Hytrek

December 5, 2023

Amy Bingaman knows first-hand how anti-abortion clinics push disinformation and fear in order to prevent people from getting abortions. 

Now an OB-GYN at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, Bingaman went to an anti-abortion clinic when she was 16 years old to get a pregnancy test, and she wants people to know about the dangers these non-medical clinics pose to patients who are often in vulnerable positions.

“They’re not medical professionals,”Bingaman said. “They can’t truly assess if a patient’s at risk for an ectopic pregnancy. What kind of health problems do they have? What does it look like if they chose to continue a pregnancy?”

Anti-abortion clinics are not licensed medical centers, though many offer free or low-cost ultrasounds and pregnancy tests. Their main goal is to deter patients from getting abortions, or stall care for long enough a patient is no longer able to get an abortion. 

Sometimes they offer parenting programs, and even claim to present people with factual resources about pregnancy-related health care, including abortion. But the clinics often present misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of procedures and contraceptives.

Their names often include words like “pregnancy resource center,” and most are religiously affiliated. According to Crisis Pregnancy Center Map, there are 42 in Iowa.

“When [patients] go to a pregnancy crisis center and they’re seeing somebody who’s sitting across from them in a white jacket giving them information, they’re going to perceive that as medical advice from a professional with training,” Bingaman said.

Francesca Turner, an OB-GYN and vice president of Iowans for Health Liberty—a political action committee made up of doctors advocating for reproductive freedom and justice in Iowa—has talked to patients who were told contraceptives are the same as abortion, could give them cancer, and would damage their overall health—none of which is true.

“It’s not a substitute [for health care], and we’re pretending like it is,” Turner said. “And I think that’s very dangerous for the overall health of our state.”

Turner said she’s seen patients who have had miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies misdiagnosed by anti-abortion centers. They were incorrectly told their pregnancies were in early stages or they were experiencing normal amounts of pain, and then they showed up to Turner needing emergency surgery.

“It’s perplexing to me that someone without any ultrasound training does [an ultrasound],” Turner said. “It should be illegal to have an untrained person use medical equipment, then tell a person that they’re diagnosing them.”

Because anti-abortion clinic staff aren’t trained in interpreting the images, there have been documented cases where serious medical issues are missed or not mentioned. And because anti-abortion clinics aren’t medical centers, they aren’t bound by health care privacy laws.

“It’s just a dereliction of duty and it does significant harm to women,” Turner said. “If you are putting money into something that gives false information and medically inaccurate information to patients and puts them in actual harm’s way, and you are funding it as a state, I don’t understand how that is acceptable or legal.”

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists says anti-abortion centers endanger public health.

Iowa ranks last in the nation for the number of OB-GYNs per capita, and a third of Iowa counties are maternity care deserts, meaning they don’t have OB-GYNs, birthing hospitals or birthing centers.

“I think for me, the worst thing is really getting people at a vulnerable time and trying to manipulate them to do what [the clinic staff] feels is—moralistically—what their [best] pregnancy option is,” said Bingaman.

In 2022, the Iowa Legislature passed the More Options for Maternal Support (MOMS) Act, and provided $500,000 to fund nonprofit “pregnancy centers.” This year, Gov. Kim Reynolds advocated allocating $2 million more in taxpayer money to these anti-abortion centers

Iowa isn’t the first state to use taxpayer dollars to fund anti-abortion centers. According to the Associated Press, at least 10 states have been doing so for years. In 2022, Texas lawmakers “dedicated a record $100 million in state tax dollars” to fund such programs. 

In Iowa, the MOMS program hasn’t produced results yet, and the state has failed to find an administrator for the program, the Des Moines Register reported in early November. 

Still, Republican lawmakers have praised it as a way to support women who choose to remain pregnant. But Turner and Bingaman said the taxpayer money could be better spent in a number of ways.

“They could do more funding where we could maybe provide doulas or some kind of person to give support during the pregnancy, visiting nurse services, those kinds of things where there’s issues with transportation or childcare or things that are preventing them from coming for their visits,” Bingaman said.

Doing more to incentivize OB-GYNs to come to Iowa, increasing sex education in schools, and increasing access to preventative care for patients would also be good ideas, she added.

“It’s unfortunate to fund non-medical facilities that are pushing a political agenda when we could use the funding so much better.” Bingaman said. “These political moves are not going to improve our ability to recruit people to practice in Iowa by any means.”

  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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