By Lara Hengelbrok
Reproductive health care advocates have won some important victories lately, particularly this summer’s Whole Woman’s Health decision, which preserved and strengthened the constitutional protection of the right to choose. But while we’ve been celebrating, advocates have been waging another battle over reproductive health care. In California, lawmakers and advocates are fighting against the deceptive practices of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that exacerbate existing barriers to reproductive health care access.
CPCs are facilities designed to look like medical clinics providing services for unintended pregnancy, but in reality are venues for anti-choice organizations to coerce pregnant people into carrying their pregnancies to term. CPCs lure pregnant people, particularly those who are low-income, with offers of free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. They often conceal the fact that they are not medical facilities and do not provide abortion or contraceptive services, even when directly asked. They then lie to clients about the effects of abortion—that abortion causes breast cancer, likelihood of later miscarriage, infertility, and sterility, in addition to spiritual and emotion trauma, PTSD, and depression.
If a crisis pregnancy center has harmed you in some way, or if you have visited one of these centers and want to share your experience with us, please do so now!
And in spite of these dangers, CPCs receive support and direct funding from the federal and state governments. Twelve states directly fund and 20 states directly refer people to CPCs. Not to mention that CPCs are being awarded federal grants to provide abstinence-only sex education in public schools, increasing the rate of unintended teen pregnancy.
California responded to the threat that CPCs pose to reproductive health care by enacting the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act. The Act, which went into effect in January of this year, required CPCs licensed under the California Health and Safety Code to provide notice of available free or low-cost reproductive health services, including contraceptives and abortion, through the Medi-Cal program, along with a phone number to the local county social services office. It also requires unlicensed CPCs to affirmatively disclose to all clients that they are not licensed and do not have a licensed medical provider supervising services.
Naturally, CPCs immediately challenged the Act, arguing that it was unconstitutional on free speech grounds. CPCs argued that their speech is protected non-commercial speech because they don’t charge for their services. This argument obscures the connection between their free services and their ability to secure funding, both from private donors and state governments. It also ignores that their false advertising about pregnancy services prevents consumers from accessing the health services they’re seeking.
Fortunately, the Reproductive FACT Act survived preliminary injunctions in federal district courts. Following the decision, Los Angeles City Attorney recently issued warnings to three CPCs for failing to comply with the law. Failure to comply within 30 days would result in a $500 fine, with subsequent violations costing $1000 per offense.
While this may sound like a rather limited regulation with a minor penalty, it’s actually a pretty big deal. Efforts to curb CPCs’ deceptive practices have been largely unsuccessful; even requiring CPCs to affirmatively disclose that they do not provide emergency contraceptives, abortions, or prenatal care has been considered an infringement on free speech. CPCs have argued that these disclosures would impede their ability to express their disavowal of abortion while simultaneously listing abortion as a pregnancy option on their websites and advertisements.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with organizations pursuing religiously motivated advocacy, and CPCs are certainly well within their rights to denounce abortion. But the government funding of CPCs’ campaign of medical misinformation and false advertising, combined with the ceaseless attacks on Planned Parenthood and abortion providers, demonstrate that CPCs are just another example of the ongoing assault on bodily autonomy and access to reproductive health care. It’s a relief to see that California legislators and local officials are responding to those threats to reproductive freedom.
Lara Hengelbrok is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising third-year student at the University of Washington School of Law. She received a PILA Grant to pursue public interest work and hopes to work towards ensuring access to quality education and curriculum reform. She is also a baking goddess and unapologetic pop-culture junkie.
Photo courtesy of Esparta Palma | Creative Commons