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Getting Crisis Pregnancy Centers to Confess

If only "crisis pregnancy centers" came with their own FDA warning labels: "contains misinformation," or "may result in poor decision-making." Generally, however, crisis pregnancy centers have long operated under the radar in communities around the country, quietly suppressing a woman's right to choose under the pretense of offering reproductive health care. There are an estimated 2,300 to 4,000 of these centers nationwide, some backed by government funding [PDF] and some-according to an investigative report in the latest issue of Ms. magazine-having close contact with anti-abortion extremists.

The New York City Council-following in the footsteps of Baltimore and Austin-is the latest city government to take up legislation to at least force these Potemkin clinics to fess up.

Though CPC's may operate just within the letter of the law, the legislation promoted by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Jessica Lappin would force them to disclose up front that "they do not provide abortion services or contraceptive devices, or make referrals to organizations that do," according to the Wall Street Journal. They would also have to say if their facility lacks licensed on-site medical personnel. As Lappin said :

These are anti-choice centers masquerading as health clinics. Women who are scared and vulnerable and having a very tough decision to make have a right to factually accurate medical information, and the fact that these folks would purposely try to mislead them is not right.

Typically, if you walk into a CPC-often located close to an abortion clinic and given a name that makes it hard to distinguish from that clinic-you'll be greeted by a counselor who will strive mightily to dissuade you from an abortion (sometimes complete with religious exhortations and [deceptive] fear-mongering advice about medical risks). Then the counselor might hit you with a menu of "abortion alternatives," particularly adoption. According to NARAL New York's study of CPC's around the country:

While some CPCs may provide appropriate support and information to women facing unintended pregnancies, many do not. Unfortunately, reports indicate that many CPCs intentionally misinform and mislead women seeking pregnancy-related information with the intention of dissuading them from exercising their right to choose. In fact, some CPCs may force women seeking objective health-care information to watch antiabortion films, slideshows, photographs, and hear lectures. Some may also refuse to provide information about or referrals for birth control.

A 2006 congressional investigation led by Rep. Henry Waxman found that the majority of centers surveyed gave misleading information, ranging from dubious to just plain wacky:

[One crisis pregnancy] center said that post-abortion stress suffered by women having abortions is "much like" that seen in soldiers returning from Vietnam and "is something that anyone who's had an abortion is sure to suffer from." Other centers said that abortion can cause "guilt, ... sexual problems, ... suicidal ideas, ... drug use, eating disorders," and "a downward spiral where they lose friends and family members."

NARAL notes that some CPC's have niche-marketed their services to black and Latina women, who have higher rates of teen pregnancy and whose limited exposure to sex education renders them easy prey for CPC-style moral suasion.

The New York City bill might bring some much-needed transparency-as would the Stop Deceptive Advertising Women's Services Act, introduced in the U.S. Congress recently by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). As Maloney says in the upcoming issue of Ms., "Deception should not be permitted, especially on such a topic. That's why there needs to be a law." Hopefully, a legal assurance of truth in reproductive health will be just the start of an open discussion about the real state of a woman's right to choose.

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