Congressmembers Work To Prevent Anti-Choice ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’ From Misleading Women

Protesters outside of a crisis pregnancy center in Ireland (Credit: Ms. Magazine)

At the end of last week, three Democratic legislators renewed their efforts to protect women from right-wing crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), anti-abortion front groups that often use misleading advertising to market themselves as women’s health clinics. Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) have reintroduced the “Stop Deceptive Advertising For Women’s Services Act,” which would hold those facilities accountable for any deceptive marketing tactics that falsely advertise abortion services they don’t actually provide. The measure encourages the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on the facilities that falsely advertise abortion services that don’t actually exist, while the organizations that are already accurately depicting their services wouldn’t be penalized.

Crisis pregnancy centers have a long history of preying on vulnerable women with medical misinformation. CPCs present themselves as a valid alternative to women’s health clinics, hoping to lure in women who want more information about their reproductive options, but they actually use conservative propaganda to dissuade women from choosing an abortion. And CPCs like to locate themselves close to reproductive health facilities — often moving in right next door — specifically to confuse patients who may be seeking an abortion.

“Deception has no place when a woman is seeking information about her health or a pregnancy,” Maloney said in a statement introducing the new CPC legislation. “While I will defend crisis centers’ First Amendment rights even though I disagree with their view of abortion, those that practice bait-and-switch should be held accountable so that pregnant women are not deceived at an extremely vulnerable time in their lives.”

Nevertheless, CPCs across the country have largely escaped accountability by citing those First Amendment rights. In cities that have attempted to prevent crisis pregnancy centers from lying to women, CPCs have typically been able to overturn those ordinances by arguing that any additional regulation stifles their freedom of speech. But there has been some slow progress lately. Last year, a judge in San Francisco ruled that CPCs don’t deserve constitutional protections for their misleading advertisements. And lawmakers in Oregon are currently advancing a measure that would require the CPCs in that state to explicitly disclose accurate information about the medical services they offer.

So far, the federal bill to crack down on CPCs has won the support of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “We know these crisis pregnancy centers lie to women in the moment they most need accurate information to decide the future of their pregnancy and their lives,” Ilyse Hogue, NARAL’s president, said in response to the bill’s introduction. “We’re thrilled that Sen. Menendez is taking action to hold these fake ‘clinics’ accountable.”

But anti-abortion politicians have actually attempted to drive more business to crisis pregnancy centers rather than work to hold CPCs accountable for spreading misinformation. In states like Texas and Ohio, Republicans have advocated defunding Planned Parenthood and reallocating those funds to CPCs — even though those right-wing organizations don’t provide the same range of medical services as Planned Parenthood does. In South Dakota, an onerous new anti-abortion restriction requires women to not only wait more than 72 hours before getting an abortion, but also forces women to receive “counseling” at a biased crisis pregnancy center before she may make the appointment to terminate her pregnancy.