Editorials

A crisis in accurate health advice

A staff nurse at an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center in Texas explains the sonogram process. Such centers offer free counseling and testing for pregnant women, but critics say they give misinformation.
A staff nurse at an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center in Texas explains the sonogram process. Such centers offer free counseling and testing for pregnant women, but critics say they give misinformation. The New York Times

For almost as long as abortion has been legal, so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” have been part of the effort to make that legal procedure difficult, if not impossible, to access.

Staffed by anti-abortion activists, crisis pregnancy centers typically advertise free testing and counseling to women who are confused, young or unmarried, and then try to persuade them to keep their babies.

Some centers make it clear that their services come from a pro-life perspective. Others, however, are far less transparent, branding themselves to look like abortion providers and then lying about the risks of abortion or tricking women into remaining pregnant past the point where termination is an option.

Last year, for example, undercover investigators sent by NARAL Pro-Choice California into 45 crisis pregnancy centers in California found that 72 percent falsely told women that abortion was linked to depression, 46 percent repeated the myth that abortion is linked to breast cancer and 35 percent claimed abortion was linked to infertility, which is untrue. One investigator, who posed as a mother-to-be, was given an ultrasound by a counselor who misdiagnosed her as pregnant. Pointing to a spot on the image, the counselor told her it was her baby. In fact, the spot was an IUD.

Such deceptive practices can be emotionally scarring and have serious health implications both for women and babies. But cracking down has become increasingly difficult because, while laws prevent medical professionals from misleading patients, telling unlicensed counselors what to say about abortion can run afoul of free speech rights.

The law on crisis pregnancy centers is a moving target and probably bound for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The issue is particularly urgent because the effort to make abortion unavailable is succeeding. The several hundred crisis pregnancy centers in California far outnumber community clinics where a woman can get an abortion; nationally, the centers outnumber abortion providers 3 to 1.

So this month, California passed the first state law to regulate crisis pregnancy centers. Scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, Assembly Bill 775 is conservatively written to avoid legal language that caused similar efforts elsewhere to be struck down.

The law requires centers without a medical license to post a disclaimer informing clients that they have no licensed medical professionals on staff. Those that are medically licensed have to tell women that the state also provides public financial assistance for reproductive services, including abortion, and then give them an 800 number to call a general social service line for more information.

That may not sound like a lot, but within days after Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 775 into law on Oct. 9, conservative legal groups filed for injunctions in U.S. District Courts in Sacramento and San Diego, claiming that the state is infringing on the centers’ rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

Similar signage laws in New York, Baltimore and Austin have been overturned in court or substantially eroded, though in February, a federal judge upheld a false-advertising ordinance in San Francisco requiring the centers to post notices making it clear that they don’t offer abortions. Legal scholars say the law is a moving target and the U.S. Supreme Court will probably eventually decide.

Until they do, however, this trend toward polarizing medical information has to be called out and ended. An activist’s right to free speech, no matter how sincerely held on any side of the abortion issue, shouldn’t trump a pregnant teenager’s right to sound, complete and factual medical advice.

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