The California Assembly passed legislation this week that that aims to protect women from receiving misleading information from anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers, which are known to use deceptive tactics — including outright lying — to dissuade women from choosing abortion.
AB 775, known as the Reproductive FACT Act, requires crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) to provide accurate information to pregnant women about all of their reproductive health care options, including abortion.
Under the bill, CPCs will be required to either post or distribute notices educating women on their reproductive rights. The notices must share the following:
California has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services (including all FDA-approved methods of contraception), prenatal care, and abortion for eligible women. To determine whether you qualify, contact the county social services office at [insert the telephone number].
The measure will also require facilities without medical licenses that advertise and provide pregnancy testing and care to post a notice saying they have neither a license nor licensed providers on staff. Many CPCs in California are unlicensed but still try to pass themselves off as legitimate medical facilities.
Supporters of the bill say they hope the increased transparency will ensure that all women seeking reproductive health care have access to the services and information they need to make informed decisions about their health and lives.
“We’ve long guaranteed a woman’s right to privacy to make her own reproductive choices and have access to a basic level of health care, but that right is an empty promise if she lacks the ability to obtain care and services, or if she doesn’t know about all of the options available,” said Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Los Angeles), who co-authored the bill. “With AB 775, all clinics will be held to the same standard, and all patients will have access to clear, timely information about their health care rights.”
A Deceptive Industry
California has more than 160 CPCs, of which 90 percent are operated by three anti-choice groups: Care Net, Heartbeat International and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates. As RH Reality Check explains:
CPCs in California, like those in the rest of the country, have the either explicit or unstated goal of preventing clients from obtaining abortions. To meet that aim, CPC workers regularly dole out misinformation about the procedure, telling pregnant people that an abortion would negatively affect their health and that they shouldn’t go through with the procedure because they will likely miscarry anyway.
The centers, which in many states receive government funds, attract people by disguising themselves as abortions clinics, advertising their services as unbiased counseling and buying up or leasing space near abortion clinics.
A recent yearlong study of California’s CPCs found that 91 percent of visitors were presented with false information and repeatedly told that abortion causes breast cancer, infertility, the non-existent mental illness “post-abortion syndrome” and other health issues. All of these claims have been debunked by medical experts. Even at clinics licensed by the California Department of Health, staff members are poorly trained and prone to lying. One undercover investigator undergoing a sonogram was told that her IUD was her baby. Patients who asked for birth-control methods were told to “stop whoring around.”
The investigation also documented marketing efforts “carefully designed to give the impression that the CPC is a health-care clinic that provides comprehensive, medically accurate counseling about all reproductive health-care options.” For example, CPCs use intentionally vague signage and websites to make women believe that they offer abortion services and contraception, when they do not, while untrained staff members and volunteers don white coats to create a false sense of credibility.
These marketing tactics are designed to prey on vulnerable women facing unintended pregnancies, who are often desperate to find the nearest clinic and may find it difficult to distinguish a CPC from a real reproductive health facility. Once inside, women are told that they will be examined by licensed medical practitioners; instead, they are “counseled” by CPC staff who use medical misinformation, emotional manipulation, and shaming tactics to dissuade women from abortion.
“CPCs target women seeking abortion care with false advertising that misleads women into thinking they are comprehensive women’s health facilities,” Amy Everitt, NARAL Pro-Choice California’s state director, said in a statement. “Instead, CPC workers are trained to lie to women to keep them from accessing contraception and abortion care. It’s time for California to take a stand against their deceptive practices.”
“The Assembly sent a clear message that women deserve information to help them make the best health care decisions for themselves and their families,” she said.
Not surprisingly, anti-choice advocates are opposed to the bill, rejecting the idea that CPCs should be required to tell the truth to women. The legislation has been dubbed “the Bully Bill,” by anti-choice advocates, who argue that the bill “unfairly” targets CPCs by holding them to the same standard as other medical facilities and not allowing them to violate women’s constitutional rights.
“I find it extremely difficult to understand how people who claim to care about women find it so threatening to inform them about accessing affordable health care,” Everitt said. “Making sure women have the care they need to lead happy and healthy lives shouldn’t be controversial. We can all agree that women deserve to have all the information in front of them when they make some of the most important decisions they will ever face.”
Cracking Down on CPCs
The fight for clear and accurate information for pregnant women has long been a battle for women’s rights activists. Just last summer, in response to a campaign by NARAL Pro-Choice America and several partner organizations, both Google and Yahoo agreed to remove deceptive ads for CPCs from their search results when users seek information about abortion services. Most of the advertisements claimed that the CPCs provided abortions when they did not.
On a broader scale, legislation attempting to regulate the more than 3,000 CPCs across the country has been met with mixed results. An Austin, Texas, ordinance requiring the centers to post signs disclosing they’re not medical facilities was struck down in 2014, but the Supreme Court upheld a similar law in New York.
In California, similar measures have been tried at the municipal level. San Francisco three years ago passed a local rule requiring pregnancy centers to make clear that they don’t offer abortion services or referrals. A federal judge upheld the ordinance this year, rejecting the argument that it compelled speech. Similar ordinances in Baltimore and New York City have also addressed concerns about transparency.
At the same time, many states and localities are making it easier for crisis pregnancy centers and, thus, completely inaccurate abortion information, to thrive. The Guttmacher Institute identified seven states that use tax dollars to provide funding to CPCs. Texas shells out a whopping $5 million over two years, topping the list of states that include Missouri, Kansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Two dozen states also authorized money made from the sale of “Choose Life” license plates to go toward crisis pregnancy centers. South Dakota even requires patients seeking abortions to visit a center before they can undergo the procedure.
With tax dollars in the mix, crisis pregnancy centers have enjoyed relatively little pushback from the states. Until now. The California Senate could hear the bill in committee as soon as June 8. After that it will go to the full Senate for a vote and then to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk for final passage. Hopefully, other states begin following its lead in making sure that vulnerable women are getting the actual care that they deserve.