Virginia’s health department is telling women to visit right-wing “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) before they’re able to get an abortion, according to a new investigation from NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. Since CPCs are essentially front groups for the anti-choice movement — with a long history of using medical misinformation to persuade women to change their minds about terminating a pregnancy — the NARAL report points out that Virginia is essentially using its health department to intimidate women out of their decision to have an abortion.
Under Virginia’s forced ultrasound law, women in the state must undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion procedure. (That law is the same one that sparked national outrage last year over invasive transvaginal ultrasounds — which led the legislature to amend the bill’s language to remove all mention of transvaginal probes.) The state department provides a list of 18 different health clinics where women can receive a free ultrasound to meet the requirement, intended to help ensure that low-income women have the resources they need to follow the law. But NARAL discovered that all 18 of those state-endorsed locations are actually crisis pregnancy centers.
“It is deeply troubling that an official governmental agency would, by referring women to these facilities, confer legitimacy on their pervasive use of deception, emotional manipulation and medical misinformation,” the organization says in its new report. “These centers are a threat to public health, and must be treated as such — not legitimized by the highest medical institution in the Commonwealth.”
NARAL Pro-Choice America has tracked CPCs for years, frequently releasing state-level reports about the emotional manipulation and outright lies that women encounter at the right-wing front groups. According to NARAL, employees at CPCs typically repeat the same false claims: abortion causes breast cancer and can lead to sterility, having an abortion is always psychologically damaging to women, and using birth control can lead to abortion. In Virginia specifically, the women’s health group found that at least 40 of the state’s 58 CPCs are telling their clients that type of medically inaccurate information about abortion.
And they’re also taking advantage of Virginia’s ultrasound requirement to prevent women from choosing an abortion. In some extreme cases, NARAL says that CPCs refused to turn over the ultrasound results to women who needed to take them to an abortion appointment, or wouldn’t agree to fax the results over to abortion clinics. CPCs also used more subtle tactics, like using the ultrasound image to shame women — in one instance, a CPC employee wrote “Hi, Dad” next to the image of the fetus before showing it to the patient.
Crisis pregnancy centers typically cite their First Amendment rights in order to escape additional regulation that would prevent them from misleading women. Although some local officials are working to change that, CPCs have largely gone unchecked. In May, Democratic legislators introduced national legislation that would crack down on CPCs’ conservative propaganda, but it’s currently languishing in Congress with little chance of advancing.