Health

California Wants To Stop Crisis Pregnancy Centers From Lying To Women

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Elected officials in California — including the attorney general — are urging the passage of a statewide measure that will help patients make fully informed decisions about their reproductive health care. The proposed legislation would specifically crack down on unlicensed “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) that present misleading health information designed to dissuade women from choosing abortion.

At a press conference this week, Attorney General Kamala Harris pointed out that California prides itself on being a leader in the field of reproductive health policy. But she said the state could still do more to ensure that “women are empowered to make informed and timely decisions about their health and their bodies.”

Under the California Reproductive FACT Act — which stands for “Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency” — licensed women’s health facilities would be required to inform their patients about how they can obtain affordable birth control, abortion, and prenatal care. Facilities that don’t have a medical license, meanwhile, would be required to make it clear that they aren’t licensed and clarify which of those service they don’t offer.

The state lawmakers spearheading the legislation say that type of transparency will help patients recognize when they’re in CPCs, which are right-wing organizations that have become powerful players in the anti-choice movement.

CPCs masquerade as women’s health clinics in order to get face-to-face with pregnant women. These centers typically offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, their staff members often wear white coats, and their waiting rooms tend to look like any other doctor’s office. However, they don’t actually offer birth control or abortion services. They are largely in the business of providing biased counseling designed to convince women to continue their pregnancies. In order to do that, their staff often imparts blatantly false medical misinformation — downplaying the effectiveness of birth control, exaggerating the medical risk of abortion, and emphasizing shame-based messages about the dangers of having sex outside of marriage.

Despite the fact that the Golden State has taken unprecedented steps to expand access to abortion services, opponents of the medical procedure have continued to make inroads with the help of CPCs. Particularly when a scared woman facing an unintended pregnancy is desperate to find the nearest clinic, it can be difficult for them to distinguish a CPC from a real reproductive health facility.

Critics of the centers say that’s exactly the point. There are an estimated 167 CPCs throughout California, and, according to a recent report from the state’s NARAL affiliate, they often set up shop in low-income and minority communities where many of the women only speak Spanish.

“We think it creates an interesting dynamic here. People are lucky enough to live in a state that has good protections and good coverage for abortion and prenatal care, but aren’t necessarily going to get to the right place,” Rebecca Griffin, the assistant director of California Programs at NARAL, told ThinkProgress in a recent interview.

That’s where the Reproductive FACT Act comes in. Not long after NARAL’s report was released, Assemblymembers David Chiu (D) and Autumn Burke (D) introduced the measure, citing the “growing and alarming movement working to mislead women in order to achieve their political ideology.”

Chiu and Burke’s bill represents the first time that California lawmakers have attempted to crack down on CPCs on a statewide level, but it’s hardly the first legislative effort in this area. Three years ago, San Francisco became the first city in the country to pass a local ordinance requiring CPCs to make it clear they don’t offer abortion services or referrals. That policy was challenged for allegedly violating CPC owners’ freedom of speech, but a federal judge rejected that argument and upheld the ordinance earlier this spring.

There are already some signs that the anti-abortion community is mobilizing in opposition to the proposed Reproductive FACT Act, calling it a “bully bill” that’s “demeaning to women.”

Supporters of the measure have brushed aside those critiques. “I find it extremely difficult to understand how people who claim to care about women find it so threatening to inform them about accessing affordable health care,” Amy Everitt, the state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, said at this week’s press conference. “We can all agree that women deserve to have all the information in front of them when they make some of the most important decisions they will ever face.”