News Law and Policy

Oakland Could Outlaw False Advertising by Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Nicole Knight

California already requires CPCs to post information about free or low-cost abortion care or contraception in their facilities. The proposed ordinance would penalize licensed and unlicensed "limited service pregnancy centers" for making untrue or misleading statements in ads, online, and in publications.

Elected leaders in Oakland, California, want to crack down on crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) with a truth-in-advertising ordinance.

A panel of some members of the city council on Tuesday took up the proposed measure during a Life Enrichment Committee meeting, arguing that many of these religiously run centers target pregnant people with deceptive billboards, websites, and search engine results for “abortion.”

California already requires CPCs to post information about free or low-cost abortion care or contraception in their facilities. The proposed ordinance would penalize licensed and unlicensed “limited service pregnancy centers” for making untrue or misleading statements in ads, online, and in publications. The ordinance also applies to statements of omission, meaning the withholding of information. Violators would be given ten days to take corrective action by the city attorney, and could face civil fines from $50 to $500. Penalties also include running new ads to correct deceptive ones.

“Crisis pregnancy centers put their ideological agenda ahead of women’s health,” Oakland Vice Mayor Annie Campbell Washington told those gathered in chambers. “They target what they call ‘abortion-minded women’ with deceptive advertising, implying they offer abortion services or referrals.”

Campbell Washington said the new “consumer protection measure” was necessary because individuals who go to CPCs are “being lied to.”

Baltimore, Maryland, was the first city in the nation to enact a similar truth-in-advertising ordinance, which has been blocked amid a court challenge. In 2011, San Francisco passed a similar ordinance. It prevailed after a protracted court battle, when a district judge said the First Amendment does not protect false and misleading commercial speech.

During public comments, Christina Malin, director of family health services for Alameda County Public Health Department, expressed support for the ordinance, noting that CPCs inflict harm by targeting low-income communities of color in particular. She described receiving a voicemail message from a CPC worker asking for help with an undocumented client with a high-risk pregnancy. Malin never learned what happened to the patient.

Malin also noted that county prenatal clinics had observed a tendency by CPCs to refer their clients to county facilities for medical care once the client reached about 24 weeks of pregnancy, when the individual “can no longer terminate easily” and abortion care, while lawful, is more expensive. These former CPC clients, Malin added, arrive without records of appropriate prenatal medical care, such as lab work.

Campbell Washington noted that CPCs are difficult for clients to vet on their own because a facility will frequently change its name.

Rewire found, for example, the state has licensed the CPC Third Box Pregnancy Clinic to operate at 400 30th Street #401 in Oakland under the legal name First Resort. But online and in Yelp reviews the facility at 400 30th Street #401 is called Support Circle Pregnancy Clinic.

First Resort, as it turns out, is the same religiously run nonprofit that challenged the San Francisco ordinance, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. In its print and online ads in San Francisco, First Resort claimed to offer “abortion information, resources and compassionate support for women facing the crucial decisions that surround unintended pregnancies and are considering abortion,” although it did not refer clients to abortion providers or provide abortion care.

On Tuesday, Amy Everitt, state director of the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice California, showed those gathered in chambers how a Google search for “Oakland” and “abortion” produced results with three clinics, two of which were CPCs. She noted that a 2015 NARAL investigation found that 91 percent of CPCs in the report dispensed false information.

Google has said it would correct its inaccurate search results.

The measure now heads to the full Oakland City Council after unanimously clearing the Life Enrichment Committee.

The ordinance comes amid reports in Sacramento and Los Angeles of CPCs flouting the new state law requiring pregnancy-related centers, including CPCs, to post a brief notice about access to free and low-cost abortion care and contraception.

The Los Angeles City Attorney recently announced that his office would begin cracking down on violators of the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, as Rewire reported. But some jurisdictions have chosen not to enforce the law while five lawsuits against the FACT Act are pending.

Officials running CPCs contend they’d rather close than comply, and say in court filings the law violates their First Amendment rights.

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Matt Bowman, who is representing the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates in challenging the FACT Act, said in a statement earlier this month thatforcing [the centers] to promote abortion and recite the government’s messages is a clear violation of their constitutionally protected First Amendment freedoms.”

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