From the heavily-edited videos that made Planned Parenthood staff look like insensitive fetal tissue profiteers to presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s erroneous ad campaign, the past months have unveiled the general misinformation and coercion behind many anti-abortion groups. Now, one state has taken the leap to combat these types of harmful anti-abortion propaganda at the source: inside anti-abortion organizations disguised as health clinics. But not without a fight.
On Friday, California became the first state to pass a law regulating the nearly 170 anti-abortion clinics in the state. Barely 48 hours later, two clinics had already sued California Attorney General Kamala Harris, deeming the new law unconstitutional.
The law, called the called the Reproductive FACT Act, requires clinics commonly referred to as “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” (CPCs) to inform their patients about how they can obtain affordable birth control, abortion, and prenatal care. If the CPC does not have a medical license, staff must inform each patient that their their clinic is not licensed to provide health care.
“This is about all women, regardless of where they’re seeking care, being provided with the same information about their reproductive health options,” said Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, a reproductive rights organization that spearheaded the bill. “At CPCs, women aren’t getting health care, they’re getting an agenda.”
However, the lawsuit claims this act “unconstitutionally compels [the clinics] to speak messages that they have not chosen, with which they do not agree, and that distract, and detract from, the messages they have chosen to speak,” therefore undermining their free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
This constitutional argument has been the key to shutting down similar laws in the past. Cities like Austin, Baltimore, and New York City have all been sued for violating clinics’ freedom of speech and religion with laws regulating CPCs. In each case, the laws were overturned. Supporters of the Reproductive FACT Act, which is the first law passed at the state level, hope it won’t see the same fate.
In the process of crafting the bill, state and advocacy groups like NARAL tried to ensure they wouldn’t fall into the same legal trap as the cities before them. They expected a lawsuit. In the past, Everitt said, courts have upheld that that the state has authority to regulate speech done in the course of a profession, like in providing medical services — which could negate the free speech argument.
Everitt said she’s confident that this bill meets all constitutional requirements. Plus, the law is backed by the state’s attorney general, who is responsible for upholding the constitution.
“That alone should say something,” she said.
CPCs are known to use the guise of a women’s health clinic to push anti-abortion and often religious views on women considering an abortion. These centers attract patients with the promise of free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, and their waiting rooms look like any other doctor’s office. The staff, dressed in white medical coats, aim to dissuade women from going through with an abortion — leaning heavily on scare tactics and manipulation to do so.
People on both sides of the abortion debate say they’ve been largely successful. A Texas CPC staff member estimated that around 95 percent of the women who get an ultrasound at their clinic (one of the ways staff pressure a vulnerable patient to connect with their unborn fetus) end up going through with a pregnancy. And according to a 2011 report by NARAL Pro-Choice California, 85 percent of California CPCs have “misled women to believe that abortion is both traumatizing and dangerous,” by telling patients that they’ll likely experience severe depression, breast cancer, or infertility if they go through with the procedure.
Everitt says that instead, many patients can face serious health risks if they believe CPC are health care providers. Once women are past the point of being able to have an abortion, the CPC isn’t as interested in helping them. Everitt recalled the story of a doctor she interviewed while researching for the bill who had seen a pregnant patient straight from CPC care. The patient was diabetic, which risked the health of both herself and her baby — a life-threatening factor that the clinic had missed.
“They may claim this is a free speech issue, but it’s really a public health issue,” Everitt said. “When women are looking for trustworthy health care, they should get it. Right now, they’re not.”