UPDATE, December 12, 12:24 p.m.: Hartford’s city council approved the ordinance on December 11. The final text, which takes effect July 1, requires fake clinics to disclose their lack of a licensed medical provider on their websites, rather than in advertisements. The ordinance applies to centers that offer to provide ultrasounds or prenatal care, even if the facility doesn’t actually provide these services.
In Hartford, Connecticut, two doors face each other across a brick courtyard.
Signs in similar colors and font bear the names “Hartford Women’s Center” and “Hartford GYN Center.”
Behind one of these doors is an abortion clinic; behind the other, a crisis pregnancy center (CPC), or fake clinic, whose purpose is to deter patients from abortion.
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When patients arrive for appointments at Hartford GYN, the abortion clinic, anti-choice protesters and CPC volunteers try to corral them into the fake clinic. There, according to testimonies collected by pro-choice advocates, representatives frighten these patients with misinformation, telling them that abortion is a sin and that they might not make it out alive. So aggressive are the clinic’s tactics that they even once waylaid a bewildered payroll company employee on her way to a meeting with another organization in the same complex, telling her that they could help her.
Hartford Women’s Center is part of St. Gerard’s Center for Life, an affiliate of Heartbeat International, which describes itself as the largest network of crisis pregnancy centers in the world. Its members are trained to conceal their true intentions by opening near abortion clinics and ditching religious content. The clinic’s name and location, and the medical scrubs sometimes worn by its representatives, appear designed to confuse people into mistaking it for the abortion clinic that stands just yards away.
Now city officials are trying to address the misinformation.
Hartford is the latest city to consider legislation to prevent fake clinics from deceiving patients. Similar attempts have faced legal challenges, including a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court that could determine whether these clinics can keep lying to patients nationwide. Hartford officials say they are confident their measure will stand up in court—and they are willing to fight to defend it.
The ordinance would ban fake clinics from using false or misleading advertising and require them to disclose in the entrance, waiting area, and on advertisements whether they have a licensed medical provider on the premises, with penalties of up to $100 a day for non-compliance.
On Monday, scores of people packed into a public hearing on the ordinance at Hartford City Hall, some in purple “Trust Women” shirts and others in yellow with stickers showing their support for the state’s crisis pregnancy centers. Among Hartford residents, who were allowed to speak first, ordinance supporters outnumbered opponents by a ratio of about three to one.
Among those supporters was Erica Palmer, who said she has been targeted by individuals gathered outside the fake clinic while walking in the area with her son.
“Just this summer, I’ve been followed on foot by the representatives who demanded to know whether I was there for an abortion or birth control, been told that my choices were damning me to hell, estrogen and birth control cause cancer, and that they can reverse the [abortion] pill,” Palmer said.
Abortion pill reversal, an unproven protocol promoted by anti-choice groups, is among the services listed on St. Gerard’s advertisement cards, along with free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and “help recovering from post-abortive trauma,” a purported condition that is unsupported by evidence.
Palmer also read aloud a statement by her 9-year-old son, Donovan, about how the anti-choice people “stalked us to the car” and “made me feel worried for my mom and anxious.”
Another Hartford resident who supports the ordinance, Kamora Herrington, told the city council about how she saw an ad for pregnancy support when she was pregnant at the age of 18. After calling the number on the ad, she realized that the person on the other end of the line had an anti-choice agenda.
“When I got off the phone with that person, I was more lost than I was when I got on the phone,” Herrington said. “I believed that there was truth in advertising.”
St. Gerard’s denies that it engages in deceptive practices and says that the medical services it offers—pregnancy tests and ultrasounds—are performed by licensed medical personnel who undergo ultrasound training from anti-choice organizations.
Rewire asked St. Gerard’s executive director Leticia Velasquez why the organization chose the name “Hartford Women’s Center.”
“Some women, when they see a saint’s name, even devout Catholics, they feel that they’re going to be judged,” Velasquez said, adding that the organization is in Hartford, and, “We love women.”
Pressed on whether the new name was chosen for its similarity to the abortion clinic’s, Velasquez demurred.
“We like to say that this is who we are,” she said. “We have a right to it.”
When asked why the center was located so close to Hartford GYN, St. Gerard’s board chair and medical director, Dr. Judith Mascolo, told Rewire that it’s “where the women are.”
“Location, location, location,” Mascolo said. “It’s all about business. We go where the women are.”
In public Facebook comments, Velasquez has touted the CPC’s coffee bar as a tactic “to lure abortion minded women off the path to the abortion clinic.” Asked by Rewire about the postings, she said she regrets using that phrasing.
“That was a poor choice of words,” she said. “But I want them to come in, because we want to love them.”
Hartford’s debate comes at a pivotal moment for efforts to regulate these centers.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the right-wing litigation mill Alliance Defending Freedom’s challenge to a California state law that requires fake clinics to disclose if they are not licensed medical facilities, and display information about free or low-cost access to abortion and contraception.
Other efforts to regulate these centers in Hawaii; Baltimore and Montgomery County, Maryland; and Austin, Texas, have also faced legal challenges.
But Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the city modeled its measure on city ordinances that have withstood such challenges in New York City and San Francisco.
An appeals panel this year upheld San Francisco’s ordinance banning false or misleading advertising by fake clinics, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld New York City’s requirement that these clinics inform patients whether they have a licensed medical provider on staff. That’s the same court that could consider Hartford’s ordinance.
“I think it’s a pretty simple and pretty basic proposition that women who are making decisions about their health care and their future should not be subject to deception,” Bronin told Rewire in an interview.
But Rewire found enforcement of these measures has been uneven at best.
Just last week, the agency charged with enforcing New York City’s ordinance testified before a city council committee that it has issued only two notices of violation after fielding complaints about nine facilities and conducting 21 inspections. Most of the facilities visited were not required to post the disclosure because regulators determined they did not meet the legal definition of pregnancy resource center—which the Hartford ordinance copies.
That definition requires facilities to offer ultrasounds or prenatal care, or to meet two of six criteria indicating it appears to be a medical facility, in order to be subject to the law. New York did not start enforcing its ordinance until last year, due to the litigation.
Planned Parenthood of New York City said its examination has shown no crisis pregnancy centers in the city have actually posted the required disclosure.
In San Francisco, the city attorney’s office told Rewire it has sent just one warning letter to a crisis pregnancy center—and that was in 2011, when the ordinance was first introduced. It’s been in effect for six years.
Hartford Mayor Bronin told Rewire he will work with the city’s incoming director of the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure enforcement is “effective and appropriate.”
Meanwhile, organizers at Hartford GYN have boosted their escort program, positioning volunteers outside to usher the clinic’s patients in the right direction. They have also been documenting the stories of patients who are waylaid by the fake clinic.
“They have been given false medical information, they’ve experienced shame, they’ve been pressured about their decision, and have not known in the beginning that they were in the wrong place,” Erica Crowley, who serves as both an organizer for NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut and volunteer coordinator for Hartford GYN, told Rewire.
One 21-year-old patient told Crowley how a fake clinic representative told her that abortion was a sin that she would regret, and that she might not make it out alive if she had one.
Leticia Velasquez told Rewire her counselors do not use that kind of terminology. Another patient said she was offered $50 and a free ultrasound; Velasquez acknowledged that the center did offer such compensation during its ultrasound training.
The stories Crowley has collected also include that of the payroll worker who was on her way to a meeting with NARAL, which is in the same complex. When the worker asked for directions to NARAL, people outside “acted confused as if you were several blocks away,” the employee later told Crowley. “They asked me if I wanted to speak to someone at their office and [said] that they could help me.”
Velasquez did not dispute that account.
“We might have thought she was pregnant,” Velasquez told Rewire. “Saying ‘we can help you’ is not saying ‘you have an appointment.’”
But abortion clinic patients who have mistakenly entered the fake clinic say that volunteers there have referred to them as patients with appointments, Hartford GYN escorts testified at Monday’s hearing.
Hartford’s ordinance takes aim at this kind of deception.
“It’s not a question of whether you agree with abortion or not personally,” Sarah Croucher, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, told Rewire in an interview. “It’s a question of whether you think that when someone is deliberately seeking a certain kind of appointment they should just be able to go to that appointment, and not be misled on their way.”