Justin Trudeau’s Liberals pledged to remove a charitable status for anti-choice organizations in a campaign promise in September 2021, but this has not happened yet. 

For Calgary, the epicentre for this battle is the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre, a registered charity that assists pregnant women but does not provide abortion counselling. The question remains: will crisis pregnancy centres, or CPCs as they are known, survive and be able to help pregnant women with the removal of charitable status? Will the feds follow through on this promise?

A crisis pregnancy centre is a legal organization, often with religious affiliations. Many pro-choice groups allege that crisis pregnancy centres are unlicensed medical centres that provide misinformation and should not be allowed to operate. There are 21 crisis pregnancy centres in Alberta according to research by the Pro-Choice Society of Lethbridge & Southern Alberta

A screenshot of the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre website, which is currently registered as a charity.

“They basically create barriers for people to access the care that they need or really fuel abortion stigma, which also acts as a barrier to health care,” said Frederique Chabot, director of health promotion for Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. She argues that crisis pregnancy centres pretend to be social services by offering food and supplies.

Calgary’s CPC is on a list of anti-choice groups in Canada created by the Abortion Rights Coalition Canada (ARCC). 

Jutta Wittmeier, executive director for the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre, said: “This is not the first-time people say such things. We’ve received a lot of comments and most people that say those comments have not yet been in our centre and I will be glad to meet with them and tell them what we do. We are here to help women no matter what they decide to do.” 

Frederique Chabot, Director of Health Promotion Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, states that CPCs interfere and can delay access to actual care for pregnant women.  PHOTO SUPPLIED BY FREDERIQUE CHABOT.

Removing charitable status would be a challenge, but not the end, for the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre, said Wittmeier. 

“The tax incentive for donors would be gone and donors would not get tax benefits.”

If de-registered, Witmeier said that they would still be able to continue their work.

“I believe that many donate because they believe in the cause but some might stop contributing,” she added. 

Wittmeier said that if people could see the good work they do, they would feel differently.

According to the Canada Revenue Agency, the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre has been a registered charity since 1985 and has a total yearly revenue of $1,319,798 as of June 30, 2021. This includes their receipted donations of $827, 281 (62 per cent) and government funding of $36,883, which equals 2.79 per cent of its total revenue. 

Revenue breakdown of the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre according to Revenue Canada. GRAPH CREDIT: REVENUE CANADA

The Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre stated their charitable program is “to provide ongoing practical, emotional and educational support for people facing obstacles related to pregnancy and parenting, achieving positive outcomes for individuals and families.” 

A judgmental act of support 

Sue, a middle-aged Black woman who is a client of the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre, sits in one of the centre’s meeting rooms, surrounded by various toys and several baby supplies on the table. 

Sue tells her story of how she was surprised to discover that she was four months pregnant with twins. She thought her chances of getting pregnant were very low due to problems with her ovaries. 

Despite her excitement, the moment she realized that she was pregnant, worry and stress started to emerge. Sue was by herself in a new city with no family except her partner who was working every day. She did not know what to do. As her pregnancy started to progress, health problems arose. She started bleeding throughout her pregnancy and this caused panic. 

As she retells these moments, she tears up. She explains that she searched for an organization that would be able to support her pregnancy journey and eventually came across the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre and decided to make an appointment. 

“The first time I came in I just cried, I literally just cried, two days in a row. They listened.”

Sue, client of calgary pregnancy care centre

Located in downtown Calgary, the centre holds different rooms such as a children’s playroom, meeting and counselling rooms and, of course, offices for their staff. During non-pandemic periods, the centre was open at all times for families to get the support they needed. It also has a small donation centre where families can find clothing for their children of all ages. 

“The first time I came in I just cried, I literally just cried, two days in a row. They listened,” said Sue. 

“The whole time I was pregnant I was bleeding. I had no idea what was happening to me. I know I needed someone to help me and guide me cause when it came to parenting, I had zero experience.” 

Sue is one of many women who deal with surprise pregnancies without healthy support systems to lean on and no help from loved ones. Despite having a partner working to provide for his family, Sue did not have much help during her pregnancy and said she found it at the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre.

A need turned into an action?

Despite these different supports provided by CPCs, several pro-choice groups, such as the Health Promotion Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, argue that CPCs should not be open to women who seek help because they mislead pregnant women and deter them from making their own decisions. They also allege that CPCs may push pregnant individuals towards unethical decisions that will cause them psychological harm.

Likewise, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada reviewed and concluded that CPCs present themselves as unbiased medical clinics or counselling centres. 

“CPCs are not medical facilities, most are Christian ministries, they generally will not refer clients for abortion or contraception, and many promote misinformation,” their study reads. It also says that 96 per cent of CPCs revealed a religious affiliation

Jutta Wittmeier, the executive director of the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre, stated that “many non-profits are religiously based, we do not base our support towards women based on their religion, we help every woman that comes to our door, we support them, we do not decide for them.” 

On that note, Sue explains that she never felt pressured anyone at the centre.

“I am Muslim, this place has nothing to do with any religion,” she said.

She added that if any woman requires information no matter their religion, they will “not hold back. If they have the information, they will give it to you.”

Lobbying continues

Pro-choice groups have been lobbying for years to remove CPCs’ charitable status. Joyce Arthur, the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, and her team have been leading letter-writing campaigns to “urge provinces and cities from providing any funding for pregnancy centres,” stated Arthur to Global News in June 2019. 

The 2021 policy platform ‘Forward for Everyone’ was seen as a success. It pledged specifically to “no longer provide charity status to anti-abortion organizations (for example, Crisis Pregnancy Centres) that provide dishonest counselling to women about their rights and the options available to them at all stages of the pregnancy.”  

Joyce Arthur, Executive Director (Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), did not only make research about CPCs in Canada but made a list of all the anti-choice groups in Canada, as she states “crisis pregnancy centres spent a lot of misinformation about abortion services in those causing harm in the community.” PHOTO SUPPLIED BY JOYCE ARTHUR.

Research conducted by Arthur and her team found ​​that 68 per cent of the 180 CPCs identified had charitable tax status. With that said, Arthur and her team have sent the Canada Revenue Agency about 63 complaints about charities making errors on their tax returns such as not reporting their federal grants. Despite their many attempts, she points out that no further actions were taken by the CRA to discipline the CPCs. 

“We just wanted the government to pay more attention to this. Anti-choice groups should not have charitable tax status,” said Arthur.

“Their reason of being is to end the right to abortion, groups want to criminalize it or they are against it, but this is a fundamental right for women.” Arthur added, “This is not the kind of activity that a charity should be doing.”

Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland was unavailable for comment. But her press secretary, Adrienne Vaupshas, gave an email statement to the Calgary Journal in early April. She responded to questions about why the Liberal pledge to remove CPCs’ charitable status had not been enacted and if the government would take any further action on this matter. Her statement read:

“All Canadians have the right to access safe, consistent reproductive health services. We’ve taken action to protect this right, including repealing outdated sections in the Criminal Code; investing in groups like Planned Parenthood that promote and protect the right to choose; requiring groups applying for funding through the Canada Summer Jobs program to attest that their organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights, which includes reproductive rights and; easing restrictions on Plan B to help increase its accessibility. Our government always has and always will defend reproductive choice in Canada and will continue to work hard on real solutions that will advance equality for everyone. More information will be available in due course.”

ADRIENNE VAUPSHAS, Press Secretary – Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Ottawa

MRU political science professor Lori Williams offered an explanation for the inaction so far. She explained that in many cases if the political party does not see any sort of political incentive to do so, they will not pursue their stated policy. 

“It’s the kind of thing that they say to get political support, and unless there is continued advantage involved in pursuing that further, they’re not going to do that. They’re not going to bother with it,” said Williams. 

A choice according to your needs

Jutta Wittmeier of the Calgary Pregnancy Care Centre emphasizes that if there is removal of charity status and no government funding, they will not be able to help women as they would like to. At this moment, most of their income comes through fundraising that they conduct throughout the year.

For Sue, the centre’s clinics misunderstand what happens there.

“I am disappointed that some people feel that way, to be honest. I am so angry. If they actually hear the stories and they witness the people that come here and need help, I think they will have a different point of view,” said Sue. 

Chabot points out that removing the charitable status is a very important move that the government should make, by stating that it’s part of a series of interventions that is at their disposal to address the work of anti-choice organizations.

“So that’s a tool that the government has, not to facilitate the kind of disinformation and anti-choice activities that these groups promote in Canada.”

Despite the lack of action enacting this governmental policy pledge, MRU’s Lori Williams enunciates that there’s a need to have “both sides of the spectrum, for a woman to be able to decide and see the choices that she has when it comes to her pregnancy.”

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