By Jennifer Carnig
A television offered the only sound in the waiting room. On the screen, graphic videos of abortions played on a loop.
Some of the young women next to me sat with their eyes glued to the floor. A few glanced at the television, their eyes wide and wet.
Like me, they were either pregnant or afraid that they were. They had come to a Brooklyn office of EMC Pregnancy Center to get help.
EMC looks like a typical doctor's office - but it's not. It's a "crisis pregnancy center" run by anti-abortion activists who seek to persuade pregnant women against having an abortion. Many are located in low-income communities, close to Planned Parenthood offices.
Though I wasn't showing, I knew I was 23 weeks along. And I wasn't there to be persuaded not to have an abortion. I was there for my job.
I am 32 and work at the New York Civil Liberties Union. As the City Council readies to hold hearings this month on whether these crisis pregnancy centers deceive the women they purport to help by trying to dissuade them from having an abortion, the NYCLU wanted to get an up-close view.
My pregnancy offered a way in.
On the paperwork I was asked to fill out there were questions about my pregnancy history, but also inquiries about how often I go to church and whether I had been baptized.
Soon, the woman who runs the center - a spry septuagenarian whom I'll call Betty - came to talk with me. I told her I was "going to school to become a teacher" and thought I might be pregnant. I did not tell her whom I actually worked for.
Betty told me about the lives she's saved and talked a lot about "free will" and how we have to live with the choices we make. She told me that if I had my baby, she'd set me up with housing, health care and a job. She even said she could get me money for school and a job for my partner.
I was brought to a bathroom and told to pee for a pregnancy test. It was "inconclusive." The only way to be sure was a sonogram. Betty led me into an exam room, where a woman in scrubs told me to lie down. This center does not appear to employ any medical staff, but the room looked exactly like a doctor's office. The woman in scrubs pulled the wand over my belly and played the sound of the heartbeat for me.
With a few more swipes over my belly, the woman in scrubs "gave the baby a full examination" and declared, "your baby is healthy and perfect." The procedure took less than five minutes. I was never seen by a doctor or nurse, and my fetus had not received a "full examination," though if I didn't know beforehand, I would have assumed - as many women do - that I'd had a full checkup.
It's this deception that the City Council wants to end with a bill - sponsored by Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilwoman Jessica Lappin - to require crisis pregnancy centers to disclose to patients if they have no licensed medical professionals on staff. The bill would also require them to inform women that they do not provide abortion, contraceptives or referrals for those options.
For her part, Betty was clear that I wouldn't get information about an abortion at EMC. I have no doubt that EMC's employees believe they're doing God's work. What's more, they're exercising their First Amendment rights.
It's crucial those rights remain protected, but women also need truth when it comes to their health. They should know that having a baby is one choice among several. Crisis pregnancy centers that are set up to look and feel like a medical office, and are regarded as such by visitors, must be completely upfront about being nothing of the sort.
After more than two hours, I told Betty I needed to get to class. As I walked out the door, she called after me to tell me that I was special, hugging me tightly and giving me a pin to wear near my heart of little silver baby feet.
And, by the way, my baby is due on Valentine's Day.
Carnig is the director of communications of the New York Civil Liberties Union.