“Pregnancy: Know your options, get the facts.” That’s what one of the subway advertisements in New York tells passersby as part of a public awareness campaign launched this week by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo who is up for re-election. The ads are meant to combat misinformation being spread by so-called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), anti-choice clinics that often lie to women to dissuade them from seeking abortions.
“In New York, we refuse to let President Trump and Washington take us backwards and jeopardize the rights of New Yorkers. We are launching this public awareness campaign to combat the insidious spread of misleading, medically inaccurate information about reproductive health and to ensure all New York women know the options they are legally entitled to,” Cuomo said in a statement.
The campaign directs New Yorkers to a website with comprehensive health-care information on pregnancy, abortion, and contraception. It also tells them what to look for in a reproductive health center and connects them to medical providers. The information is being distributed statewide in multiple languages.
There are approximately 4,000 CPCs nationwide and more than 100 in New York state, according to Pro-Truth New York, a coalition of reproductive rights advocates, policy makers, and service providers. The CPCs advertise in a way that they can be mistaken for a real health-care center providing abortions. Most don’t provide medical care and none provide abortions, but a few provide some health-care services.
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Worried that the Trump administration is working to build a U.S. Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade, Cuomo recently issued a set of regulations related to abortion and contraceptive coverage and called on the legislature to pass the Reproductive Health Act to codify those protections into state law. Republicans stymied the bill’s progress earlier this year.
CPCs obviously have an agenda and they are not forthcoming about their real mission: to try to persuade women not to have an abortion, Robin Chappelle Golston, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, told Rewire.News. “Not being transparent in that is where the real issue is,” she said. As the Trump administration tries to fund and legitimize such facilities, Cuomo’s campaign wants to ensure New Yorkers don’t fall for that.
“If people choose to get that kind of counseling, they should be able to, but when they pretend to be a real health-care facility that’s going to give health-care counseling that is unbiased and accurate, when they try to deceive women and give the perception that they are really an appropriate health-care entity, I think that’s when there’s a problem,” Chappelle Golston said.
Reproductive health advocates say the harm fake clinics cause is often devastating and irreversible to people seeking pregnancy help. There is no room in medical care for false advertising and lying to patients, said Dr. Anne Davis, an OB/GYN in New York and consulting medical director at Physicians for Reproductive Health, who shared one of her patient’s experiences with Rewire.News.
Jessica (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) came to her clinic seeking an abortion; it was her fourth visit trying to get access. She went to a CPC three times, not knowing it wasn’t a legitimate health-care facility.
The staffers at the CPC told her she needed an ultrasound and made her come back twice without ever providing one. They also falsely told her she could have an abortion at any time in her pregnancy in New York City.
“As an abortion provider in NYC for 20 years, I know that is false,” Davis said. “By the time I spoke with her at our real clinic, she was long past the stage in her pregnancy where abortion would be an option. She was struggling with poverty, had no support from family, and raising a child with special needs. I was furious that I could not help her. We were both furious that the fake center that lied to her would keep doing the same thing to other women.”
Planned Parenthood also sees the effect CPCs have on New Yorkers. Patients share “many horrifying stories” about the lies they were told, how they felt harassed and intimidated, and how they were tricked into going into a fake clinic when they were trying to access a Planned Parenthood center, Christina Chang, chief of external affairs at Planned Parenthood of New York City told Rewire.News.
Chang shared a story about a patient with limited English proficiency who was looking to have an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted. She was instead given an ultrasound and sent on her way when they saw she wasn’t pregnant.
Another patient, Chang said, visited a CPC twice believing she had been seen by a medical professional at Planned Parenthood. She was subjected to shaming and given false information and a referral for what she thought was an abortion clinic but was actually a CPC that did not provide medical procedures.
“These anti-abortion facilities do not provide legitimate health services and only make it harder for those in need to access support and information, often delaying the delivery of time-sensitive medical care. No one should be lied to and manipulated when trying to access health care,” Chang said.
Davis said she applauds Cuomo’s effort to raise public awareness about fake clinics and the real harm they cause.
“When we visit health clinics and doctors’ offices, we expect truthful answers to questions and the right care for what we need. This is obvious, basic, and foundational to health care. Yet, when people seek information about pregnancy-related medical care, they need to beware. Across the country and in New York State and City, fake women’s health centers proliferate. They advertise themselves as supportive and patient-centered. When inside, it’s a different story,” she said. “People who need abortion must be wary and do extra checking to be sure they are visiting a legitimate provider. Not every clinic can provide abortions, but all real health clinics can provide accurate counseling and referrals. The subway is a perfect place to provide this information.”
Activists and reproductive health advocates have long warned the public about the mission and purpose of CPCs, but when government speaks out, it sends a powerful message, advocates said. While educating the public has always been the first line of defense, Cuomo’s campaign goes a step further by directing people to real health clinics and doctors.
The campaign takes steps to ensure patients can “access confidential, comprehensive, real health care, not ideologically driven anti-abortion fake health care, regardless of who they are and their immigration status, insurance status, socio-economic status, so we think it’s great,” Danielle Castaldi-Micca, political and government affairs director with the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH), told Rewire.News.
The “Know Your Options” initiative clearly outlines what services a person should expect from a reproductive health-care provider. This is important because patients deserve to know that unbiased, nonjudgmental, medically accurate care is available across the state, advocates said.
Fake clinics and their misinformation are “a huge problem that people wouldn’t think would be an issue in New York, but it definitely is, throughout the whole state and city, so any way to raise awareness is a great improvement,” Chappelle Golston of Planned Parenthood said.
Reproaction, a national advocacy organization that fights for reproductive justice and has been running its own campaign to hold CPCs accountable, also commended Cuomo’s effort. “It’s critical that political leaders take action to alert their constituents to the threat anti-abortion fake clinics pose to people seeking legitimate care and medically accurate information,” co-director Pamela Merritt told Rewire.News.
The Supreme Court dealt a blow to reproductive rights in NIFLA v. Becerra in June by overturning a California law that required CPCs to provide women with abortion information. The Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency Act or the Reproductive FACT Act required centers to post notices about the availability of free or low-cost health-care services, including prenatal and abortion services, and tell visitors whether they were licensed by the state to perform medical services.
“Public awareness campaigns like Reproaction’s direct-action work outside fake clinics or Gov. Cuomo’s new advertising effort in New York are a key first step for consumer and community awareness in our post-NIFLA world. I hope to see similar efforts in other states,” Merritt said.
“Reproductive health care is a right and should be accessible, affordable, and safe for all women,” Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement. “With this public awareness campaign, we’re increasing awareness of the family care and health services available to women in New York State.”