Linda Rouleau, a counselor with the Women's Medical Center of Rhode Island, one of three abortion providers in the state, said she has had several clients who showed up at crisis pregnancy centers expecting an unbiased discussion of their options and got something quite different.
"They felt like they were ambushed," she said. "All these negative things about abortion — confusing them, making them feel guilty, making them feel bad."
O'Connell, whose Mother of Life Center hosts Problem Pregnancy, said women who call the number on the organization's billboard get a straightforward accounting of the group's position on abortion.
And those who turn up at Problem Pregnancy, he said, get a compassionate brand of support and solid information on abortion.
But the "facts" proffered by the centers are suspect.
O'Connell said counselors at Problem Pregnancy warn women that abortion can "weaken the cervix" and create problems with future pregnancies. A pamphlet at the center suggests a link between abortion and breast cancer. And literature at Care Net purports to explain the symptoms of "post-abortion stress."
But there is no scientific basis for these claims. Researchers have found no link between abortion and increased risk for infertility. A National Cancer Institute conference of experts, convened in 2003, found that "abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk." And neither the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychi-atric Association recognizes post-abortion stress.
Indeed, an expert panel convened by the American Psychological Association found persuasive evidence that "abortion is usually psychologically benign."
But still, the messages persist. And not just in Rhode Island.
In 2006, at the request of US Representative Henry Waxman, female investigators with the House Committee on Government Reform called 23 crisis pregnancy centers posing as pregnant 17-year-olds trying to decide whether to have an abortion.
Twenty, they found, offered "false or misleading information about the health effects of abortion," including the same warnings about breast cancer, infertility and psychological trauma offered up by the Rhode Island centers.
One center told a caller that the suicide rate in the year after an abortion "goes up by seven times." Another equated "post-abortion stress" with the trauma endured by many Vietnam War veterans.
Vicki Saporta, president of the pro-choice National Abortion Federation, said the prevalence of these messages speaks to the true motivation of the centers. "Clearly they have a political agenda and not a medical agenda . . . and that is to prevent women from accessing abortion," she said.
Indeed, the ultrasound images and pregnancy tests that have sprouted of late are just a screen for the centers' true mission, Saporta said, an attempt to put a stamp of legitimacy on a fundamentally dishonest work.
And when the centers succeed in convincing a woman to forgo abortion, critics add, their early offers of toys and clothes do little to address the enduring problems of poverty and family strife that lead so many women to consider abortion in the first place.
"It is not a sustainable commitment," said Susan Yolen, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island. "A box of Pampers and a couple of maternity tops doesn't really do it for very long."
It is a starkly different view of the centers. A view that proponents dispute.