Overview:

You'd think that the volunteer manual for a pro-life, fake women's clinic would give A-game reasons to buy into the culture war. But you'd be dead wrong.

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Last night, we got a bit of good news on the reproductive rights front. The pro-life, anti-abortion crusade got a serious body blow! That’s when Kansas voters strongly rejected an amendment in their state that would have easily allowed their legislature to completely ban abortion. This news shocked just about everybody, especially me (I briefly lived in Kansas). And it’s gotten me remembering how I once opposed reproductive rights myself. A brush with a fake clinic’s volunteer manual got me straightened right out, though. Unexpectedly, though, that manual also helped me struggle free of my false religious beliefs⁠—and taught me a lesson about dishonesty that I’d never, ever forget.

(I first described parts of this story back in 2013: “How I became the only pro-choice Pentecostal I knew.” I’ve also discussed abortion and fake women’s clinics in these previous posts: “An introduction to fake abortion clinics,” “The pseudoscience of the Crisis Pregnancy Center,” “Clobber verses used by the Crisis Pregnancy Center,” “Becoming a volunteer for a fake women’s clinic,” “The dark origins of the anti-abortion culture war,” “Silence in the pews: Pro-choice evangelicals,” “Building a worldview around consent.”)

I was once a pro-life believer

When I became Pentecostal, I adopted my denomination’s culture wars against LGBT people and legalized abortion. The reasoning seemed gauzy to me, but in general I was on board. In college, my then-boyfriend (later husband) Biff got way involved in a campus pro-life group. I attended as well on occasion.

The young leader of this group had some serious culture-war bona fides: she said she’d been forcibly raped by a Black man (she herself was white). She had decided to keep the pregnancy that resulted. She now had an adorable mixed-race toddler, who she brought to all the meetings. In pro-life circles, that testimony made her practically a little sister of the Virgin Mary in terms of elevation above the pro-life masses. She was untouchable, no matter how out-of-hand she got at the many demonstrations she arranged for the group.

I didn’t actually do much as a pro-lifer. I didn’t attend any of these demonstrations; they conflicted with class and study time. But I’d talk about the topic with normies if it came up, and it did, often.

But Biff went all-in. It’s like he’d found his niche, his people, his cause.

I’m pretty sure it was this group that gave him the idea of volunteering with a Crisis Pregnancy Center (CPC). I know some of the other members volunteered there.

A quick overview of fake women’s clinics

CPC is a large chain of fake women’s clinics. They operate worldwide, but particularly in the United States. Clinics like these resemble real clinics in every way, except their equipment is almost never as high-end as that of a real clinic, and their counselors are usually simply passionately pro-life Christian volunteers with little to no medical or psychological training, education, or credentials.

Often, these fake clinics set up shop close to real ones, especially real ones near college campuses. Fake clinics particularly target young college-age women, who will presumably be far more vulnerable to the powerful manipulation they can bring to bear.

These fake clinics exist for one reason and one reason only: to deceive and manipulate women into staying pregnant. They’ll do anything to delay a woman in making that decision, even giving her minor amounts of tangible help (like a bag of groceries) or deceptive answers to her questions. They want these women to reach their state’s time cutoff for legal abortion care, so they can’t get an abortion. Every single facet of a fake clinic’s operations, every procedure, every service offered, exists to assist in that goal.

These fake clinics also see their unwary visitors as evangelism targets, but that’s a secondary goal if anything. If you were wondering why I specified “Christian” volunteers up there, that’s why. Fake clinics tend to be full of extremely, extremely religious staffers and volunteers. (The chain of clinics we’ll be talking about today actually required volunteers to sign a statement of faith and get recommendations from their church leaders.)

Indeed, these clinics rely on Christian propaganda and reasoning to an extent that would hopefully alarm the regrettably-large number of atheists and none-of-the-aboves who’ve gotten snookered into joining Christians for their cynically-engineered culture war.

Biff becomes a pro-life volunteer

After we got married, Biff filled out his lengthy application to be a counselor for this one fake women’s clinic that his pro-life club liked. They accepted him right away.

I expressed some doubts about a clinic using untrained, uncredentialed volunteers as counselors, but he waved them away. He described his new position as more like evangelism than actual psychological counseling.

The clinic gave him a plastic notebook containing his new volunteer manual. With this manual came a warning for him: it was eyes-only. He was not to allow anyone else to read it, not even his own wife. He was also supposed to read it and absorb the information in it, though I don’t think he ever did.

I was disappointed not to be able to read it myself, as I suspected it contained a pro-life “A” game of explanations and talking points, but I was content to follow the rules.

For the time being, at least.

(Narrator whispers: Yes, that was foreshadowing.)

How fake clinic counseling works

Biff loved being a counselor at his fake women’s clinic. Every day when he got back, he delighted in sharing stories with me about how his shift had gone that day.

He told me that every single shift began with a group prayer. Not everyone volunteering at these fake clinics belongs to the same denomination; some are hardline Catholics, while others are evangelicals. Some speak in tongues; others pray with rosaries. So, Biff said, they took turns giving the pre-shift prayer. He spoke in tongues, he said with pride, then wistfully hoped aloud that it might interest his fellow volunteers into asking more about how he Jesus-ed.

Often, he talked about the women he bamboozled during his shifts. For the most part, they were young and broke, and thus attracted through the fake clinic’s advertisement of free pregnancy tests. This clinic, like almost all fake clinics, used regular pee-stick tests that anybody could buy from the grocery store for about $10 even in the early 1990s.

But the clinic’s counselors told these women that it’d take hours to get results. While the women waited and waited and waited and WAAAAAITED, Biff and the other counselors worked on them.

My ex-husband was an inveterate and compulsive liar, but I still believe that most of his stories about his escapades there were true. He was an extremely charming and persuasive speaker, and quite handsome to boot. I’ve no doubt he scored a lot of wins while volunteering there.

I, however, was struggling (ft. the faith pool)

For a while now, I’ve conceptualized faith in anything⁠—religion, their friends’ love, what time the library opens, whatever⁠—as being water in a pool.

The faith pool’s size and depth correspond to the believer’s fervor about that belief and how intensely they’ve invested in that belief. Input that the believer thinks (rightly or wrongly) confirms the belief flows into the pool from taps, while input that contradicts the belief opens drains to let water flow away at the pool’s bottom. If the drains take away all the water before the taps can fill the pool again, the belief just dies away.

A faith pool representing the library’s opening time might not be large, and it might only be fed by one or two faucet taps. It doesn’t take much to generate faith in what time the library opens, perhaps just a glance at its website. Nor will most people invest that much fervor into that belief. It’s not worth arguing about.

By contrast, a faith pool representing religious belief might be huge, very deep, and fed by dozens of taps. It takes a lot to drain away that much water. Just going through life opens drains all the time, since nothing in reality confirms any religious claims (and in fact only contradicts those claims). But a huge knock to one’s faith can open a very big and hungry drain.

And for a year or so, I’d been struggling hard to keep my faith pool filled.

The taps of my faith pool were turning off

Very slowly, taps were turning off in my mind.

I’d learned about the earliest history of Christianity, which looked nothing like any religious leaders had ever said. I’d learned that Christians themselves weren’t any better than heathens, and often much worse. The sheer sexism I saw everywhere in my religion bothered me enormously.

Of recent note, I’d learned that prayer itself didn’t work at all like Christians claim it does, and that Christians sure lied a lot in their testimonies.

And in perhaps one of the most staggering blows of all, I learned that predators could easily use young Christians’ fervor against them by recruiting them into shockingly abusive cults. Jesus wouldn’t stop any of it, either. A couple of my friends got sucked into one, and Biff and I almost ended up in it too. Both friends, along with Biff, were positive that Jesus was telling them to go live in this commune in Waco in 1992, the year before that whole David Koresh cult made the news. Either they were all incorrect, or Jesus wanted them to suffer bigly. It’s no exaggeration to say that my two friends were lucky to escape with their lives.

So I had a lot on my plate that fateful night when Biff headed off to his fake clinic for his fake counseling shift and left behind his manual.

I was bored, hard up for anything new to read, and spotted it on his desk.

A moment later, I was nose-deep in it.

The Pearson Manual: a pro-life standby

I’d just gotten my hot little paws on a CPC Pearson Manual. Someone sent me a newer one a few years ago, so it’s been interesting to compare it to my memories of the first. But back then, I had no idea what it was or how it’d come to exist.

Now I do.

Robert Pearson opened the first CPC in Hawaii in 1967. Very soon, he was teaching other pro-life groups his techniques and helping them open more CPCs in their own areas. His system used a number of self-reinforcing, interconnected forms of manipulation to bombard women with pro-life messaging from the literal first moment they opened a clinic’s door. I’m sure it was all very revolutionary-seeming to the other pro-lifers, and it caught on quickly.

In 1984, he created an all-singing, all-dancing guide to teach others how to operate a CPC and manipulate women. This Pearson Manual, as it came to be called, became holy writ for fake clinic operators.

Clearly, the owners of these fake clinics can shift material around in these manuals to suit their own needs. For example, manuals include photocopies of news clippings relating to the fight against legalized, accessible abortion care. Fake clinic owners could swap those out for ones from their own areas, or add them to the nationwide news clippings.

In addition, some pages got updated and replaced as time went on (though unsurprisingly, a lot of the medical stuff remained completely outdated in the newer manual I’ve seen). Biff’s manual looked a lot more primitive in terms of word-processing and photocopying than the newer one.

But overall, both manuals I’ve seen with my own two eyes contain almost identical information.

Or should I say misinformation?

(Narrator: YES.)

My faith pool got hit by a slate-wiper asteroid that night

Know this fact above all, as we slowly zoom in on what happened next:

Though I was struggling, I would not have described myself as anywhere near dealbreaking amounts of doubt in my faith. I still was sure I’d find reality-based explanations that made sense of the vast and troubling contradictions I’d seen and experienced.

And that state of mind did not last long.

I began seeing troublesome assertions almost immediately. Claims I knew weren’t true. Talking points that seemed designed more to manipulate than to offer truthful advice. Bible verses that looked misapplied and out of place. Scientific and health claims that I knew were false, like massively overstating the risks of first-trimester abortions, or the impact abortions had on a woman’s fertility later. Most creepily, the manual false claims about the effectiveness of various forms of contraception, along with false claims about risks involved in using them.

Before I knew it, my faith pool got hit by a slate-wiping asteroid. Forget the water draining out: it was now gushing everywhere like heartsblood.

Pro-life people are wrong: Post-abortion regret syndrome does not exist

It’s been many years since that night, but I still remember one major sticking point for me: the manual’s repeated references to “post-abortion regret syndrome.”

Pro-life people just take for granted that almost all women who’ve had abortions regret that decision. If a woman professes no regret, they act like something is supremely, scarily wrong with her. Pro-life activists also claim that this regret lasts forever.

But it doesn’t exist. The whole notion is faker than speaking in tongues and faith healing. No credible research has ever supported the existence of this made-up disorder. In reality, yes, some women do regret having abortions, especially if they’re part of anti-abortion communities. Most feel relief, though, or at least like they did the right thing in the situation.

Denying women abortions does cause psychological harm, along with devastating financial damage that may affect those women (and their families) for life.

Even in the 1990s, heck even in the 1980s, people knew all of this. And by “people” I mean that even I knew it as a teenager.

So why was this Pearson manual claiming something was real when it wasn’t?

(The new manual does the same thing, over and over.)

This manual sure didn’t fit my idea of being pro-life

I was in tears by the end of the book. I was beyond devastated. This manual contained absolutely nothing but lies, misinformation, and hamfisted manipulation. A few years later, when I saw Leeloo discovering War in The Fifth Element (1997), I immediately recognized her innocent curiosity, then her howling anguish. That’s how I was feeling that night.

YouTube video
The Fifth Element (1997). Leeloo discovers War.

The lies and distortions in the manual were definitely painful to read. But I had an even bigger problem looming ahead of me now, like the tsunami wave chasing the devastating asteroid impact.

Remember how I mentioned the faith pool’s taps? They feed water into the pool. The taps represent input that the believer thinks confirm the beliefs. For a lot of Christians, they think that apologetics, happy feelings in prayer, and extremely weak pseudohistory are totally PROOF YES PROOF of their beliefs’ truth. If they may figure out that arguments aren’t evidence, especially not logically-fallacious arguments, then that tap may shut off. But there are lots of others bringing in more water.

Well, I’d always assumed that the fake clinic manual would contain sound, airtight reasons to maintain that position.

But it didn’t. It offered not one real reason to stay pro-life. Once I peeled away all the manipulation, bad arguments, fake news, and false science and health claims, nothing remained.

This was the pro-life holy book. And this was all they had in terms of reasons to buy into the culture war.

And then, a truth crept into my heart

For a while, I just stared at the book in my lap. I was struggling to make sense out of what I’d read, to find my feet again in roiling ocean depths of pain.

As I struggled, I felt like a bell was ringing all through my body. A soft but inarguable, inexorable, unstoppable truth whispered through me:

If something’s real, if something’s true, if something’s good, then it doesn’t need lies to prop itself up. Lies are what people use when they don’t have the truth to support themselves.

This truth was so goddamned simple that it did the opposite of blowing me away: it anchored me forever. I must say, this truth has never once gotten me in trouble, which I definitely can’t say about my former religious faith. My former adherence to the pro-life position melted away, drifted away, crumbled to ashes.

But predictably and very quickly, my newfound certainty led me to another uncomfortable spot.

Test all things, and hold on to what is good

You see, it didn’t take me long to move from discarding my former pro-life beliefs to turning that magnifying lens on my religious beliefs.

I would have felt like a coward if I hadn’t done exactly that.

It didn’t occur to me that examining my faith might backfire. I’d grown up convinced that I had nothing to fear from any such examination. Like many Christians today, I was completely certain that my faith could hold up easily.

I’d seen a lot of things in that manual that reminded me very uncomfortably of how my religious peers and leaders operated. Both the fake clinic and my religious community used the same manipulation techniques, distorted facts in the same way, and told the same kinds of lies.

Only one tap now fed any water into my bleeding, broken faith pool:

The Bible itself.

Annnnd that didn’t last long either

So I did exactly what all religious leaders everywhere advise Christians to do when they’re facing serious doubts: I dropped the manual to the floor like a hot potato, grabbed my fancy leatherbound Bible, and retreated to the bedroom to read, study, and pray.

That worked about as well as one might expect.

By morning, I was completely done with Christianity.

I’d made my roll to disbelieve at last. I’d seen through the illusion. It couldn’t ensnare me ever again.

And I have the pro-life Crisis Pregnancy Center’s volunteer manual to thank for forcing me to squarely, ruthlessly examine my beliefs. I’m not sure how long I’d have stayed Christian if not for it. I might have remained entangled for years to come, maybe for forever.

As it was, the rest of my deconversion was now simply a series of questions about logistics: how to withdraw from my church obligations, what to tell Biff, how to handle a mixed-faith marriage, what to do about my wardrobe full of frumpy dresses I no longer wanted, etc.

Those could be dealt with in time.

For now, I reveled in my new freedom.

If something’s real, if something’s true, if something’s good, then its believers will never allow lies to prop it up.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...