Targeting the Vulnerable: Crisis Pregnancy Centers Deceive

Vicki Saporta

It's April Fool's Day and the National Abortion Federation is urging activists to take action to "stop deceptive advertising practices" by Crisis Pregnancy Centers. Read on to see what you can do to help!

Imagine you are a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy. After careful consideration, you decide to obtain an abortion and schedule an appointment at a clinic listed under "abortion services" in your local phone book. When you arrive for your appointment you are forced to listen to a religious lecture, given misinformation about the risks of abortion, and refused referrals to actual abortion providers. Imagine your surprise when you realize you are not at a legitimate reproductive health care clinic, but rather have been fooled into visiting a Crisis Pregnancy Center. This sounds like an April Fool's Day prank, but this scenario happens to real women seeking reproductive health care every day and it's no laughing matter.

Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) have a long history of intentionally misleading women to prevent them from accessing abortion care. The first CPCs were established in the 1960s after state legislatures repealed their laws criminalizing abortion. Today there are as many as 4,000 CPCs in the United States, compared to the less than 2,000 facilities that actually provide abortion care for women.

Many CPCs use deceptive advertising practices to fool women into thinking that they are legitimate medical clinics that provide a variety of reproductive health care services, including family planning and abortion care. In reality, most CPCs do not provide full options counseling and generally will not refer for abortion care or birth control.

These fake clinics use deceptive advertising practices such as intentionally placing advertisements under the "abortion services" heading of phone and Internet directories and choosing names that are similar to abortion clinics to confuse women about what types of services they provide. Many CPCs are connected with religious organizations, but few disclose that fact in their advertising. Additionally, CPCs often locate themselves in close proximity to legitimate reproductive health care facilities. We have heard from many patients who mistakenly visited a CPC because it was on the same street-or even next door-to the actual abortion provider where they had an appointment.

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CPCs target young and low-income women. They lease buildings near colleges and universities, advertise in school newspapers, and lure women into their facilities with the offer of a free pregnancy test and options counseling.

Once they get women inside their doors, CPCs often force women to watch graphic, misleading videos; pressure women with religious sermons; and provide medically inaccurate information about a false link between abortion and an increased risk of breast cancer, the effects of abortion on future fertility, and the mental health effects of abortion. Some CPCs further mislead women by giving them false pregnancy test results so that they will postpone obtaining abortion care. Others have been known to give women ultrasounds depicting gestational ages more advanced than their actual pregnancies in order to make them think that they are too far along to access abortion services. In some cases CPCs even promise to provide financial assistance to women if they carry their pregnancies to term, but this assistance usually doesn't last once a woman's pregnancy has advanced past the legal termination limit in her state. Even after women leave CPCs, they sometimes continue to be mistreated. In a clear violation of patient confidentiality, many CPCs call women and harass them about their decision to obtain abortion care for weeks after they visit the center.

Many CPCs even receive federal funding. Under the Bush Administration, CPCs have received more than $30 million in federal funding, and legislators frequently attempt to fund CPCs at the state level through state-sponsored programs, specific grants, or tax credits. In 2006, Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) released a study, which found that 87% of the federally funded CPCs provided inaccurate and misleading information including the false link between abortion and breast cancer, the effects of abortion on future fertility, and the mental health effects of abortion. It is reprehensible that federal taxpayer dollars are being used to support fake clinics that deliberately deceive women with false medical information.

CPCs should not be allowed to threaten women's health through deception and mistreatment. Last year NAF worked with Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) who introduced the "Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women's Services Act" in the U.S. House of Representatives. Specifically, this legislation authorizes the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the deceptive advertising practices of CPCs, which regularly advertise that they provide abortion care when they in fact do not provide such care. We congratulate Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) for taking the lead in the Senate to introduce companion legislation today on April Fool's Day-to prevent women from being further fooled and harmed by these fake clinics.

Today is a day of action, and we are calling on activists to contact their Senators and ask them to co-sponsor the "Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women's Services Act." Members of Congress need to understand how women are harmed by fake clinics masquerading as reproductive health care facilities. To learn more about ways you can take action against CPCs and to find contact information for your elected officials, visit our website www.prochoice.org.

Women facing an unplanned pregnancy deserve accurate and complete information. For unbiased information about pregnancy options, referrals to providers of quality abortion care, and funding assistance, contact the toll-free NAF Hotline at 1-800-772-9100.

News Health Systems

The Crackdown on L.A.’s Fake Clinics Is Working

Nicole Knight

"Why did we take those steps? Because every day is a day where some number of women could potentially be misinformed about [their] reproductive options," Feuer said. "And therefore every day is a day that a woman's health could be jeopardized."

Three Los Angeles area fake clinics, which were warned last month they were breaking a new state reproductive transparency law, are now in compliance, the city attorney announced Thursday.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a press briefing that two of the fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, began complying with the law after his office issued notices of violation last month. But it wasn’t until this week, when Feuer’s office threatened court action against the third facility, that it agreed to display the reproductive health information that the law requires.

“Why did we take those steps? Because every day is a day where some number of women could potentially be misinformed about [their] reproductive options,” Feuer said. “And therefore every day is a day that a woman’s health could be jeopardized.”

The facilities, two unlicensed and one licensed fake clinic, are Harbor Pregnancy Help CenterLos Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

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Feuer said the lawsuit could have carried fines of up to $2,500 each day the facility continued to break the law.

The Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act requires the state’s licensed pregnancy-related centers to display a brief statement with a number to call for access to free and low-cost birth control and abortion care. Unlicensed centers must disclose that they are not medical facilities.

Feuer’s office in May launched a campaign to crack down on violators of the law. His action marked a sharp contrast to some jurisdictions, which are reportedly taking a wait-and-see approach as fake clinics’ challenges to the law wind through the courts.

Federal and state courts have denied requests to temporarily block the law, although appeals are pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Some 25 fake clinics operate in Los Angeles County, according to a representative of NARAL Pro-Choice California, though firm numbers are hard to come by. Feuer initially issued notices to six Los Angeles area fake clinics in May. Following an investigation, his office warned three clinics last month that they’re breaking the law.

Those three clinics are now complying, Feuer told reporters Thursday. Feuer said his office is still determining whether another fake clinic, Avenues Pregnancy Clinic, is complying with the law.

Fake clinic owners and staffers have slammed the FACT Act, saying they’d rather shut down than refer clients to services they find “morally and ethically objectionable.”

“If you’re a pro-life organization, you’re offering free healthcare to women so the women have a choice other than abortion,” said Matt Bowman, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents several Los Angeles fake clinics fighting the law in court.

Asked why the clinics have agreed to comply, Bowman reiterated an earlier statement, saying the FACT Act violates his clients’ free speech rights. Forcing faith-based clinics to “communicate messages or promote ideas they disagree with, especially on life-and-death issues like abortion,” violates their “core beliefs,” Bowman said.

Reports of deceit by 91 percent of fake clinics surveyed by NARAL Pro-Choice California helped spur the passage of the FACT Act last October. Until recently, Googling “abortion clinic” might turn up results for a fake clinic that discourages abortion care.

“Put yourself in the position of a young woman who is going to one of these centers … and she comes into this center and she is less than fully informed … of what her choices are,” Feuer said Thursday. “In that state of mind, is she going to make the kind of choice that you’d want your loved one to make?

Rewire last month visited Lost Angeles area fake clinics that are abiding by the FACT Act. Claris Health in West Los Angeles includes the reproductive notice with patient intake forms, while Open Arms Pregnancy Center in the San Fernando Valley has posted the notice in the waiting room.

“To us, it’s a non-issue,” Debi Harvey, the center’s executive director, told Rewire. “We don’t provide abortion, we’re an abortion-alternative organization, we’re very clear on that. But we educate on all options.”

Culture & Conversation Family

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.

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