WLALA Holds Enlightening Program On Litigation and Legislation surrounding Crisis Pregnancy Centers
By Vanessa Adriance and Tara Mitcheltree
On April 7, 2015 at 6:30 p.m., WLALA’s Pro-Choice and Reproductive Rights Committee held a panel discussion regarding legislative attempts to regulate crisis pregnancy centers ("CPCs") that pose as clinics offering “assistance” to pregnant women, but instead disseminate misleading information that jeopardizes women's health. The panelists were duVergne Gaines, Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project, and Rebecca Griffin, Assistant Director of California Programs for NARAL Pro-Choice California.
The panel explained that many CPCs operate in low-income areas or near college campuses and often do not have licensed medical providers on staff; nevertheless, they usually do not inform their potential clientele about their lack of medical providers but advertise with billboards and flyers that suggest they provide women with comprehensive care or "options," stating "Pregnant? Need help? Call # # # - # # # #." Women seeking advice and prenatal care who come to these facilities may be asked to give their private medical information, but the panelists noted that these women are not protected by the privacy laws, such as HIPAA, that prevent a facility from disclosing private information regarding a patient’s health.
The panelists also discussed an investigation by NARAL Pro-Choice America which found that 91% of these facilities provide clients with medically inaccurate information about the purported side effects of abortion in order to steer women away from seeking one. It was reported that CPCs engaging in this type of deception tell women that abortions cause breast cancer, a claim that the panelists noted has been disproved numerous times, including in a 2007 study that tracked more than 100,000 women for a decade. The panelists spoke about other claims made by CPCs, including that women will become infertile if they have an abortion, that they will die from abortion complications, and that they will suffer from psychological problems called “post-abortion syndrome.” Ms. Gaines and Ms. Griffin pointed out that these claims fly in the face of scientific research showing that abortion is safe and does not cause psychological or physical harm for the vast majority of women—indeed, early abortions are “markedly” safer than pregnancy and childbirth.
The panelists spoke about the delay tactics used by CPCs. For example, they may not inform women that they do not provide pregnancy terminations, instead instructing women to come in for an appointment to discuss their “options,” and scheduling the appointment for days or weeks later or they may encourage women to take additional time to think, to not seek an abortion immediately, or to return to the CPC for further counseling. According to the panelists, these tactics have the effect of inhibiting women’s ability to consider her reproductive options in a timely manner, which can result in women seeking abortions later in pregnancy when they are more invasive and costly, or, sometimes, in foreclosing the option of abortion to women altogether. The panelists further noted that for women who decide not to seek an abortion, the delay in care can still be harmful—pre-natal care at an unlicensed CPC rather than through a licensed medical professional can affect the health and growth of the fetus, and may impede the discovery of serious and even life-threatening pregnancy complications, such as ectopic pregnancies.
CPCs have appeared not just in California, but across the country. According to the panelists, CPCs are often supported with taxpayer money, and college health centers often refer pregnant students to them. Many localities, including New York City and San Francisco, have attempted to regulate CPCs. However, while the San Francisco ordinance was upheld, other ordinances have been struck down as violating the First Amendment. NARAL is currently advancing a bill seeking to regulate CPCs in California. The bill has passed the California State Assembly and will be before the Senate soon.
The key provisions of the NARAL-sponsored bill are (1) a requirement that licensed healthcare facilities whose primary purpose is providing family planning or pregnancy-related services must 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]” and (2) unlicensed facilities whose primary purpose is providing pregnancy-related services must inform their clients: “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.” Under the proposed law, these notices would be required to be “conspicuous” and at least 8.5 by 11 inches.
Proponents of this new legislation believe that, if it is passed, it would help provide women with critical information about their options when they find themselves facing an unplanned pregnancy, and help slow the flow of misinformation to vulnerable young women.
The language of the bill, referred to in the California State Assembly as AB 775, the Reproductive FACT (Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency) Act, has been reviewed by the ACLU of California, the California State Attorney General’s Office, and the Judiciary Committee of the State Assembly. Opponents of the bills have questioned the constitutionality of the first provision of the bill. The Judiciary Committee analyzed the language of the requirement that licensed facilities inform their clients that California provides free or low-cost pregnancy and family planning options to qualifying women, and concluded that the language would be considered viewpoint-neutral commercial speech, subject to intermediate scrutiny, and would likely be found constitutional since it is likely the most effective way to inform women of their options. For those interested in further discussion on the constitutionality of the bill, the entire analysis of the Judiciary Committee is available at http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml;jsessionid=cabf98ffeb5d8c2d02e2e0d85f35.
 See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22270271
Vanessa Adriance and Tara Mitcheltree are co-chairs of WLALA's Pro-Choice and Reproductive Rights Committee.