A crisis pregnancy center in Massachusetts failed to diagnose an ectopic pregnancy, causing a life-threatening emergency for the patient, a lawsuit filed last week alleges.
The complaint, filed Thursday, says the anti-abortion Clearway Clinic in Worcester, about 50 miles southwest of Boston, engages in deceptive advertising, aiming to persuade women to forgo abortions rather than "providing them with the range of medically appropriate options."
The plaintiff, a Worcester resident who is kept anonymous in the suit, alleges that the nurse who performed her ultrasound scan at the center "did not undertake sufficient medical measures" to ensure the pregnancy was viable.
An ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg implants and grows outside the uterus, most often in the fallopian tube. Such pregnancies are usually nonviable, and they can be life-threatening.
The suit alleges that the woman’s fallopian tube ruptured about a month after the ultrasound scan, "causing massive internal bleeding and necessitating emergency surgery."
Shannon Liss-Riordan, the patient's lawyer, said there is no evidence the nurse intentionally misled her. Instead, Liss-Riordan said, the staffer "missed" the ectopic pregnancy because "she wasn’t qualified to do this."
In a statement, the clinic's CEO, Jill Jorgensen, said that patient privacy laws prevented clinic officials from discussing a patient’s case. She said the clinic "has served more than 10,000 women and their families in the Worcester area for the past 22 years at no cost and have never had a complaint like this in the past."
Crisis pregnancy centers are facilities that seek to dissuade women from having abortions and often offer resources, including diapers, baby clothes and STI tests, according to Crisis Pregnancy Center Map, a database created by researchers at the University of Georgia. More than 2,500 such centers operate in the U.S. In Massachusetts, where abortion is legal up to 24 weeks, there are 29 crisis centers, outnumbering the state's 19 abortion clinics.
'You don’t know who is doing your ultrasound'
The lawsuit contends that the Clearway Clinic's website does not make it clear that "its true goal is to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies."
Liss-Riordan said her client came across the clinic when she searched online for an ultrasound scan nearby.
The paperwork the woman received after the scan, Liss-Riordan said, told her she had a "viable, in-utero pregnancy, which she did not."
The lawsuit also alleges that the paperwork was signed by a doctor, listed as the clinic’s "medical director," though the patient said she did not see the director in person.
After the woman left Clearway, Liss-Riordan said, staffers "followed up with her urging her to keep the pregnancy going."
Dr. Amy Addante, an OB-GYN based in Illinois and a fellow with the advocacy group Physicians for Reproductive Health, said that typically, ectopic pregnancies should be terminated "as soon as possible."
The alleged incident at Clearway, she said, "speaks to the dangers that crisis pregnancy centers can really present to pregnant people, because you don’t know who is doing your ultrasound."
The majority of staff members at crisis pregnancy centers are volunteers, according to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an arm of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. As of 2019, the institute found, less than 40% of such centers' combined staff and volunteer workers were licensed medical professionals.
Crisis pregnancy centers served 1.85 million people in 2019, according to the Lozier Institute. It is likely the number has grown since the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade last year, because abortion access is now banned, severely restricted or unavailable in nearly two dozen states.
Liss-Riordan said she and her client hope the case "serves as a warning to other crisis pregnancy centers that have been engaged in deceptive acts."
The suit was filed as a class action to allow other potential plaintiffs to join in the future.
Allegations of misinformation against crisis pregnancy centers
The Clearway Clinic's website says it provides "pre-abortion consultations" to discuss "emotional complications associated with the abortion procedure." It also says it provides free ultrasound scans and "abortion pill reversal."
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says claims about abortion pill reversal "are not based on science and do not meet clinical standards." The practice typically involves a dose of the hormone progesterone.
The Clearway website also says the clinic employs "a team of board certified doctors and nurses."
But Addante said her "best guess is whoever did this patient’s initial ultrasound was not someone qualified to be doing it."
A literature review of research on crisis pregnancy centers, published in the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics in 2018, documented various instances in which obstetrics and gynecology researchers have accused the facilities of spreading medical misinformation.
Two undercover NBC News producers visited state-funded crisis pregnancy centers in Texas after Roe v. Wade was overturned, and their investigation found that counselors falsely claimed abortions cause mental illness and falsely implied they could lead to cancer and infertility.
Liss-Riordan said her client sued because "she wanted to prevent other women from experiencing the type of deception that she did."
Many women, she said, go to such centers "and have no idea that they walked into something other than a regular medical clinic."