A crisis pregnancy center in Minnesota. The back of its sign says, “Life is too precious, do not destroy it.” Photo by Brianne.
While abortion clinics have been forced to shut their doors around the country in recent years due to high-profile politics debates, hundreds of privately run facilities called crisis pregnancy centers have been quietly operating under the radar.
Crisis pregnancy centers advertise free pregnancy tests, counseling, and support. But the often church-run centers are notorious for providing factually suspect information to clients in an effort to prevent them from seeking abortions. Investigations have shown that crisis pregnancy centers sometimes misrepresent themselves as licensed medical providers and refuse to tell visitors where they can get an abortion. For years, pro-choice advocates have been concerned that crisis pregnancy centers are doing harm, but there haven’t been many options to limit them. That’s changing in California.
Last month, California passed a new law called the Reproductive FACT Act, which requires anyone who provides pregnancy testing and reproductive counseling of any kind to post a notice stating:
“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].”
Organizations that are not medically licensed must also disclose that status with a second sign reading: “This facility is not licensed as a medical facility by the State of California and has no licensed medical provider who provides or directly supervises the provision of services.” Any organization that fails to comply will face a $500 fine for the first offense and $1000 for any additional offenses. It doesn’t seem like a huge change but, predictably, crisis pregnancy centers are not happy.
Now, several centers are working with the Alliance Defending Freedom to sue the government in federal court under the First Amendment, stating that the new signage interferes with their right to free exercise of religion and their right to free speech. NPR recently spoke with Josh McClure, executive director of one of the clinics involved in the lawsuit. The story describes the inside of McClure’s center, which makes it clear how visitors could confuse it for a licensed medical facility:
The exam room looks like any medical examining room, with clean linoleum floors, health pamphlets, and a box of rubber gloves on the counter. In the center of the room is an exam table with a sheet of white tissue paper laid out over it. That's where a registered nurse would hand the patient a specimen cup to get a urine sample and do a pregnancy test, McClure says. It's the same test you might buy at a drug store, he says, but here it's free, funded by donations. The R.N. signs off on the results. If the pregnancy test is positive, the nurse tells the client there are three options: parenting, adoption or abortion… When it comes to abortion, the nurses do not tell clients where they can get an abortion or refer them to abortion providers, McClure tells us. But they will talk about the clinic's view of the risks of an abortion and the cost.
McClure explains that the signage informing visitors that they’re not a licensed medical provider goes against everything his center stands for. He told NPR that requiring organizations to post the signs is akin to “telling the Alcoholics Anonymous group that they have to have a large sign saying where people can get alcohol and booze for free” or “telling a Jewish synagogue that they can have their service, and do their thing, but they have to have a large sign where people can go to pray to receive Jesus.”
But making sure people don’t confuse crisis pregnancy centers for real medical clinics is not actually like either of those hyperbolic analogies. Crisis pregnancy centers intentionally veil their political agendas to trick people who are seeking abortions to coming to the centers instead. This bill doesn’t require organizations to change anything about how they operate—crisis pregnancy centers can still provide medically dubious information about the risks of abortion. It’s simply a very small step toward transparency and ensuring that people have accurate information about providers in their area and the full range of options available.
The lawsuit against the new law was filed in federal court, so this may wind up being a long legal fight. The office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris says they’re ready to “vigorously defend” the law.