Reproductive Fraud? Sham Pregnancy Centers Face Pushback

For women in large swaths of the American heartland, the greatest challenges to obtaining an abortion are finding a nearby provider, paying for the procedure, and then wading through the slough of legal impediments (eg. 24-hour waiting periods, lectures on the biology of the fetus) erected by anti-abortion state legislatures. Increasingly, these women have faced another burden: Figuring out which of the numerous organizations claiming to offer "reproductive health services" actually provide termination referrals -- and which are merely sham clinics, established by right-wing religious activists, to trick these vulnerable women into thinking that they will provide such services as a means of pitching them so-called "abortion alternatives." Over the past several years, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Congressman Carolyn Maloney of New York have pushed for a federal law, the Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women's Services Act, which would force the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on the deceptive use of the term "abortion services." Unfortunately, the bill has gained little traction. However, progress is finally occurring at the local level.

Last November, Baltimore's City Council passed a first-in-the-nation statute requiring "pregnancy help centers" that do not provide abortion or birth control services to post signs stating that they do not do so. Austin, Texas, is considering similar legislation this week. In response, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has filed a federal lawsuit contending that such full-disclosure statues violate Constitutional free speech protections. As frivolous as such litigation may prove, it should provide the impetus for other progressive cities from New York to San Francisco to adopt similar protections for pregnant women.

Nobody contends that women seeking to learn about alternatives to abortion should be denied such information. The Catholic Church is perfectly entitled to construct centers that teach that abortion is sinful -- much as they are entitled to establish clearinghouses that advocate against no-fault divorce, homosexuality, equality for women or condom use among HIV-positive Africans. In fact, they have long done so. These institutions are called churches. Parishioners entering a Catholic Church know that they may anticipate such doctrine, and one of the bedrocks of freedom of conscience is that we allow people to propagate such ideas, no matter how deeply misguided or noxious we may find them. Similarly, I am permitted to open a center that preaches for gender equality, free love or even Satan worship. What I may not do is open a center to advocate Satan worship, but place a sign in front that reads, "St. Jacob's Catholic Church, Mass at 7:00 am and 9:30 am," in order to dupe unsuspecting Catholics into hearing my sermons. Yet similar bait-and-switch tactics are precisely the method used by many of these anti-abortion "health" clinics. For some, in fact, their sole purpose is to dupe women seeking abortions into receiving anti-abortion propaganda. Many of these sham clinics, which outnumber actual abortion providers, operate near genuine reproductive health centers and adopt intentionally misleading names that emphasize pregnancy services and women's health. They often target teenagers, women from lower socio-economic strata, racial minorities, and particularly those with limited English language skills. If their goal was to minister to women who share their anti-abortion views or even to the merely curious, they would have no qualms about disclosing their mission at the door.

The only logical reason for concealing the fact that these centers do not offer abortion or birth control referrals is to prey upon women who mistakenly believe that they do. This is not free speech. This is consumer fraud. Much like extortion, blackmail, defamation and shouting false warnings inside crowded theaters, consumer fraud has never been viewed as protected expression. If Campbell's sells me a container labeled soup, but it actually contains sawdust, the company cannot disclaim responsibility by arguing that it has a right to print falsehoods on its merchandise and that I should have looked inside the can prior to purchase. Similarly, once you call yourself a "full-service reproductive health clinic," you should not be able to disclaim responsibility for luring in pregnant women who conclude in error that you provide all reproductive health services.

Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O'Brien has attempted to shift public attention away from the underlying need for the "truth in advertisement" law to the allegedly good work done by these centers. While I confess that I am doubtful that these centers do much beyond purvey false information about the supposed health risks of abortion and contraceptives, the merits of the counseling done at these facilities is entirely beside the point. Nothing in Baltimore's law forces the Catholic Church or any other organization either to espouse ideas it does not believe or to engage in behavior that runs contrary to its ideology. All the law requires is that clinics inform would-be patrons of what they do and do not do.

The Church's lawsuit contends that the law is discriminatory because all health facilities are not required to post such disclaimers and because abortion clinics are not required to post warnings that they do provide such services. This argument ignores the longstanding conduct of these sham centers that have created an ongoing culture of deception. For example, many of these centers once advertised themselves under "abortion services" in the telephone directory until consent decrees forced them to abandon the practice. In contrast, there is no credible evidence of abortion clinics duping women who are not seeking abortions to terminate their pregnancies -- primarily because these clinics are pro-choice, not pro-abortion, so they have a vested interest in a patient's autonomy rather than any particular outcome. Women do not stumble into abortion clinics by mistake. Moreover, there are places in the country where being forced to place a sign announcing that one offers abortion referrals may actually endanger a clinic's professional staff. This climate of violence stems directly from the same protests and disruptive conduct of some of the organizations that run sham clinics. In many communities, any hypothetical pregnant woman at risk of accidentally wandering into an abortion clinic has the reassurance of knowing that a band of zealots with placards depicting dismembered fetuses will greet her at the entryway with shouts of "Babykiller!" Presumably, if she is not seeking an abortion, she will not enter.

Anti-abortion forces have a long history of masking anti-social behavior in the cloak of free speech. Pro-choice organizations have -- with a few rare and unfortunate exceptions -- directed their advocacy efforts to convincing elected officials and voters of the merits of their arguments. They do not disrupt services at fundamentalist churches or issue death threats against bishops. In contrast, the anti-abortion movement has been willing to target hospitals and health clinics in an effort to "convert" individual women at their most vulnerable moments. Such efforts often walk a thin line between protected speech and harassment. Defending sham pregnancy centers with First Amendment claims is yet another attempt by these extremists to target vulnerable individuals rather than shifting public sentiments. That may be tolerable under an ethical system that justifies all non-violent conduct, including fraud, in order to prevent the "murder" of fetuses. It is precisely same type of distorted logic that would enable one to conceal sex abuse by clergymembers in order to preserve the moral authority of a church -- particularly if that led to increased moral suasion in the debates over reproductive rights and homosexuality. Fortunately, it is the sort of deception that ordinary Americans, on all sides of the abortion divide, increasingly find intolerable. Many well-meaning people oppose abortion for a multiplicity of reasons. Most of these same people likely believe that if you are going to run a clinic whose purpose is to talk women out of having abortions, you should have the courage to tell these women upfront.

I suspect that the only reason that other progressive cities have not yet joined Baltimore in enacting such "truth in advertising" statutes is that many pro-choice lawmakers simply remain unaware of the extent of the problem. I am optimistic that the Archdiocese's suit against Baltimore will draw attention to the need for such laws. If nothing else, the publicity may put more innocent women on guard that these impostor clinics exist.