Imagine the anxiety of a young woman with an unwanted pregnancy, facing the most harrowing decision of her life. What does she do first? She probably checks the internet, where she finds a list of places that offer “free abortion consultation” or “facts about the abortion pill,” and even a free ultrasound.
A Google search for abortion counseling often leads the frantic woman to a “crisis pregnancy center,” which looks like a real health clinic – one with a receptionist, employees in lab coats, an ultrasound machine, rooms adorned with baby care products, and sympathetic faces. But these CPCs are not as they appear: They masquerade as clinics, but they are run by activists and religious organizations that exist only to discourage women from having abortions.
The staff at these places have a First Amendment right to share their thoughts about abortion, and some CPCs might serve a genuinely altruistic purpose by supporting women who decide to have their babies. But there is mounting evidence that their business model is a shady bait-and-switch right out of the PT Barnum handbook.
Vulnerable women need sound advice on reproductive care – especially relating to abortion, if their pregnancy poses a risk — and they deserve to know what they will encounter inside a CPC, so we must support legislation and other efforts to crack down on deceptive advertising that actively misleads women and protects them from the dangers they face by delaying time-sensitive care.
There are more than 50 CPCs in New Jersey, such as the First Choice Women’s Resource Center, which has five convenient locations and calls itself the “#1 Source for Free Abortion Information in New Jersey.” You won’t find a doctor at any of its sites, and they do not perform abortions, but that cannot be easily discerned from its website.
Such places have the attention of Attorney General Matt Platkin, who issued a consumer warning bulletin last week that began with these words: “Crisis pregnancy centers do NOT provide abortion care. CPCs are organizations that seek to prevent people from accessing comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion care and contraception,” by “providing false or misleading information about the safety and legality of abortion care.”
That disinformation is cruel and coercive. There are countless reports of CPC counselors telling women that abortions are dangerous (actually, women are 15 times more likely to die from childbirth) and that they can cause infertility or cancer. They pressure women into continuing the pregnancy, and sometimes push them to convert to evangelical Christianity and embrace abstinence.
The American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics has a word to describe CPCs: unethical.
But what they do is not always illegal, because they are non-profit providers of free services and are not subject to consumer protection laws in most states. Nor are they regulated as health care providers, which means they are not subject to HIPAA and can share sensitive medical data. And it is especially outrageous that many are funded with federal and/or state tax dollars.
So we applaud lawmakers who recognize anti-abortion extremists posing as medical experts as a public health risk, and who aim to make New Jersey one of the first states to apply consumer protections to crisis pregnancy centers.
One bill (A-2145) in the Assembly Women and Children’s Committee makes it a crime under our state’s Consumer Fraud Act for CPCs to use deception in advertising or to misrepresent its services. More important, it authorizes the Attorney General to take action, and even shut down centers that continue to violate the law.
“We must not tolerate women being lured into places that pretend to provide abortion services or medical consultation, only to hear that they’ll burn in hell if they terminate their pregnancy,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), a bill sponsor. who ran a family planning program during her nursing career. “Motherhood is a very personal choice, one that women should not be pressured into making.”
“There is more to do beyond this bill,” added Assemblywoman Ellen Park (D-Bergen), another co-sponsor “but this legislation would bring desperately needed protections to this at-risk population.”
The Guttmacher Institute also suggests a mandate for CPCs to disclose that they do not offer or provide referrals for abortion, and when applicable, to state there is no trained medical personnel on site.
These are all sound measures, but now everyone awaits Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin’s support of the bill.
After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and sent the issue of abortion rights to the states, Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker introduced the Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation (SAD) Act, which would direct the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit deceptive advertising related to abortion. Given that there are more than 2,500 CPCs across the US, it would have to cover a lot of territory. But such a bill is not likely to receive a debate in the House anytime soon.
That means there is a greater burden for states like New Jersey to fortify its reproductive rights and provide a refuge for women from other places. Booker affirms that “Every measure possible must be taken to ensure women have access to timely and trustworthy information.”
Real health centers are forthright about their services. They provide actual medical care and don’t pressure women to make decisions about pregnancy, birth control, and sex.
Pro-life organizations that assist expectant mothers in need are laudable. But those who put women at risk by using deception because they can’t sell their service on its own merits need to be shut down.
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