Obscurely listed "options counseling" clinic prompts an investigation

 In the summer of 2008, Nina Lopez walked into the Westside Pregnancy Clinic located on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles and requested a pregnancy test. However, she wasn't pregnant.

Lopez, a Santa Monica College student, posed as someone who thought she was pregnant and was seeking a test. She was working undercover for the Feminist Majority Foundation to investigate the clinic.

Westside Pregnancy Clinic is one of several clinics to which SMC's Health Services refers female students. According to the clinic's Web site, they are "empowering individuals to make informed pregnancy and sexual health choices."

For Lopez, it wasn't long before she felt something was unusual about the clinic. She said she was asked to fill out a form that asked for her religious affiliation and was told by a nurse that she "should consider not having sex because that's reckless."

Lopez suspected she might be in what is commonly referred to as a "CPC," or crisis pregnancy center. CPC's are non-profit organizations set up by pro-life advocates to dissuade pregnant women from having abortions.

Abortion rights activists argue that CPC's are quasi-clinics that pose as abortion providers and use misinformation to carry out an anti-abortion agenda.

As part of an independent investigation for this article, Jessica Thomas, a Corsair reporter at the time, went undercover into the Westside Pregnancy Clinic. Her experience was much tamer than Lopez's.

Thomas was pleased with her experience at Westside. She described the receptionist as being "sweet, chipper and nice." She said the clinic was "comfortably furnished, clean" and even "cozy."

She was not challenged about her sexual behavior either.

Similar to Lopez however, Thomas was asked about her religious affiliation on the patient questionnaire. Westside considers this a way to get to know patients so that they can administer the right kind of counseling.

Sharon Dittrich, Nurse Manager at Westside's Crenshaw clinic, said knowing a patient's religious background is part of servicing the individual. "If you go into a hospital, you'll always be offered a chance to put down your religious affiliation, so that the hospital can be sensitive to your needs," she said. "And as a nurse we were always taught that we had to not just expect people to come from where we're coming from, but to understand where they're coming from as well."

However, when three similar clinics recommended by SMC's Health Services were questioned, none of them attested to requiring a patient to disclose their religious affiliation. "We are not hospitals," Patricia Kytlica, Executive Director for the Women's Clinic and Family Counseling Center, said. "It's certainly not a standard practice that I know of."

Westside's CEO Talitha Phillips said Lopez's claims of being accused of reckless sexual behavior were unfounded. "If I found out that one of my nurses said something like that, they wouldn't be working here," she said. "That doesn't match any of our procedures in how we handle any of these issues with our clients."

Westside's Medical Director, Dr. James Moran, acknowledges the dubious nature of CPCs and stresses that Westside "deals with women in a non-threatening manner."

"There are no Bibles or crucifixes laying around," he said.

However, the issues pro-choice advocates have with Westside go beyond patient questionnaires or insulting comments. It's about information.

Despite the safety afforded to women through legal abortions in the Unites States, a woman going to Westside or perusing their Web site wouldn't get that impression. A Westside staffer told Thomas that the clinic doesn't offer abortion services or refer women to abortion clinics because "they didn't know if the other clinics were safe."

Westside Pregnancy Clinic warns women of an unsubstantiated psychological illness connected to abortions, referred to as "Post Abortion Syndrome" on their Web site. Studies conducted by the American Psychological Association in 1990 and 2008, as well as a review of 250 scientific studies by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in the late 1980s, concluded that there was no mental illness connected to having an abortion, apart from the understandable sadness or second-guessing associated with making a life-altering choice.

Although Westside Pregnancy Clinic acknowledges on their Web site that Post Abortion Syndrome "is not officially recognized," they still assert that "many women often have long-lasting emotional problems following an abortion" and advise women to "be informed about the mental health risks that are associated" with the procedure.

Westside lists multiple side effects for Post Abortion Syndrome, such as suicidal thoughts, nightmares and eating disorders. "Some women have issues after having an abortion," Westside's Medical Director Dr. James Moran said. "We provide a place for them to discuss it."

Connecting breast cancer to abortions is another side of the issue. The National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization have all determined there is no link between breast cancer and abortion. The National Cancer Institute's Web site states: "abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman's subsequent risk of developing breast cancer."

But according to Westside's Web site, Dr. Moran argues that "the current consensus is that the medical community is unsure about whether there is a connection between breast cancer and induced abortion."

Westside offers ultrasounds, STD testing, pap smears, post-abortion counseling, parenting workshops, adoption counseling and sexual education to students. However, Westside is not an on-going, follow-up clinic and therefore does not give out medication, including birth control.

Professor Gloria Lopez (no relation to Nina), SMC's Health Services Coordinator, said she vetted the Westside Pregnancy Clinic. According to Gloria Lopez, she verified the clinic was licensed, clean and able to deliver the services it advertises. Her primary concern was making sure students weren't being sent to a fly-by-night operation.

Beyond that, "it's a student's choice where they want to go," Gloria Lopez said. "Our belief is that students come in for information and we give it to them."

Pro-choice activists interviewed have no problem with Health Services making the Westside Pregnancy Clinic available to SMC students. However, they have an issue with how Westside is described by Health Services. As it stands, Health Services ambiguously designates Westside as an "options counseling clinic" on their list of approved medical facilities.

"We want [Health Services] to label it properly," DuVergne Gaines, the West Coast Campus Director for the Feminist Majority Foundation, said. "This facility does not provide abortions or referrals for abortions and it doesn't provide birth control."

Phillips has a different view on how her clinic is labeled by Health Services. "I think we should all be labeled the same," she said. "I think there are a lot of clinics who don't represent themselves properly. I know we are not like that."

When asked if it would be better if Health Services labeled Westside as a "pro-pregnancy clinic," Anna Koper, President of the SMC Feminist Alliance, thought that might be a more accurate designation.

"I would want the label to be very, very clear," she said. "It would be important to stress that this clinic is there to help women through their pregnancy."

Gloria Lopez feels Health Services properly informs students on the nature of the various clinics, however she is open to changing how Westside is labeled. "I can certainly give it some thought and discussion," she said.