Columnist Carrie N. Baker and Jenifer McKenna: ‘Crisis pregnancy centers’ face new scrutiny, accountability

  • Carrie N. Baker

  • Jenifer McKenna

Published: 9/28/2022 5:52:50 PM

In the wake of the disastrous U.S. Supreme Court decision revoking the constitutional right to abortion, media are shining new light on anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” and public officials are taking unprecedented actions to hold them accountable for their deceptive practices. Massachusetts – including western Massachusetts – is in the vanguard of these advances.

Crisis pregnancy centers seek to reach young and low-income people facing unintended pregnancies to prevent them from accessing abortion and contraception. CPCs have been around for decades, operating without government oversight or consumer protections. Now, post-Roe, the CPC industry is mobilizing to intercept people traveling for abortion. Massachusetts Citizens for Life recently launched a new initiative to expand CPCs in our state. New scrutiny of CPCs is crucial to protect people in the commonwealth from their abusive practices.

CPCs often use deceptive advertising and masquerade as medical facilities to get women in the door, hiding their anti-abortion agenda. Some use nonmedical ultrasounds and unethical practices like “abortion pill reversal” to stigmatize abortion and block access. Many use sophisticated digital strategies to appear first in online searches for abortion, above real reproductive health clinics. Most use false medical claims about pregnancy, abortion and even contraception.

A 2006 Congressional investigation found 80% of federally-funded CPCs promoted inaccurate medical claims. Since then, scores of CPC studies – by advocates, watchdogs, journalists, and scholars – find the same thing: deception, disinformation, and delay are cornerstone CPC tactics. While some provide diapers and other supplies parents need, a new report reveals the largest CPC network, Heartbeat International, provided less than one pack of diapers per client and strollers for only 1% of clients.

CPCs are, in fact, storefronts for the anti-abortion movement, advancing two key movement strategies: spreading abortion disinformation and collecting sensitive personal data about pregnant people. Most CPCs are affiliated with large anti-abortion corporations and plugged into their digital infrastructure. Because they are not medical clinics that charge for services, CPCs are not obligated to follow privacy standards; any personal and health information they collect could be shared in pregnancy-related criminal investigations. Thus, the expanding CPC industry – the eyes and ears of the anti-abortion movement – poses increasing legal dangers to pregnant people post-Roe.

To counter these harmful tactics, Massachusetts officials are taking action. In July, Attorney General Maura Healey issued a Consumer Advisory about CPCs, encouraging people with concerns to file complaints. A week later, the Department of Health issued a “Warning About Crisis Pregnancy Centers,” advising residents that CPCs “often look like medical clinics and sometimes use tactics to delay your access to care.” MassHealth has posted a warning about CPCs and state lawmakers have proposed a $1 million public awareness campaign.

Our local officials are also taking action. In March, Somerville passed an ordinance prohibiting deceptive CPC advertising. Easthampton is leading western Mass. efforts to require truth-in-advertising by CPCs, and neighboring communities are exploring similar proposals, alongside cities in central and eastern Mass.

At the federal level, Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced the Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation (SAD) Act in June, directing the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit deceptive or misleading advertising related to abortion. In the U.S. House, Rep. Jim McGovern has co-sponsored the My Body, My Data Act prohibiting companies and nonprofits from collecting, keeping, using or sharing anyone’s reproductive or sexual health details without written consent. Under pressure from Warren and other congressional leaders, even Google is now taking action, newly labeling clinics that provide abortion in its Maps app and blocking CPCs. This month, Sens. Warren and Ed Markey sent a letter to Heartbeat International, questioning how it handles personal data it collects from pregnant people that could be used in abortion-related prosecutions.

These are critical steps to protect people in Massachusetts – and those traveling here for abortion care – from the deception, disinformation, and data collection tactics of the CPC industry. In western Massachusetts, for example, a Springfield CPC appears at the top of Google searches for abortion and pregnancy tests, above Planned Parenthood and Tapestry, our regional providers of comprehensive reproductive healthcare. This CPC claims to provide “abortion pill reversal” (APR) to purportedly stop a medication abortion underway. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has denounced APR as “unethical” and “not supported by science.” The only clinical trial was ended abruptly because one-quarter of the participants hemorrhaged. Alarmingly, this CPC also refers people to a Heartbeat International APR website that links directly to the data collection operation Sens. Warren and Markey are investigating.

Massachusetts has strong laws protecting abortion access, but we need to do more. Our state is a target of the national anti-abortion movement, which is expanding CPCs in Massachusetts and flooding the internet with misleading ads and abortion disinformation. We must protect people in the commonwealth from this stealth attack on our health and rights to medically-accurate, non-coercive information about pregnancy, abortion and contraception.

Jenifer McKenna is co-founder of California Women's Law Center and co-author of the 2021 report, “Designed to Deceive: A Study of the Crisis Pregnancy Center Industry in Nine State. Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine.

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