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“Crisis Pregnancy Centers”: Their Deceptive Tactics and Misleading Information Harm Women

Women seeking health care information and services expect to – and should – receive complete, unbiased, and medically accurate care, including counseling, options, and referrals. Yet, some facilities that provide health services, or appear to do so, refuse to provide comprehensive access to or information about care and even purposely mislead women or give them false information. One major perpetrator of misinformation, refusals, and attempts to undermine women’s decision-making is anti-abortion organizations known as “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs). They often refer to themselves as “pregnancy resource centers.”

There are as many as 4,000 CPCs in the United States, and many of them share the goal of dissuading women from having an abortion and interfering with women’s access to abortion services. Many CPCs take advantage of women’s expectation that the health information they are provided is complete and accurate. These CPCs prey on women in the vulnerable situation of possibly facing an unintended pregnancy. As explained in more detail below, reports show that CPCs often use deceptive practices in order to get women into their centers. Once women are in the door, CPCs usually give them anti-abortion propaganda and misinformation about women’s reproductive health options, including birth control, emergency contraception, and abortion care. CPCs refuse to refer women for these services as well. Another common practice of CPCs is to force women to watch inflammatory and coercive anti-abortion videos or slide shows.

These deceptive and coercive tactics prevent women from making fully-informed decisions. By providing false, misleading, or incomplete information, and frightening or coercing women to make certain decisions about their health care options, CPCs endanger women’s health. The time-sensitive nature of decision-making about reproductive health care heightens this harm, because delayed care can mean forgone care, including the escalation of dangerous complications.

CPCs Deceptively Advertise and Pose as Comprehensive Women’s Health Clinics
CPCs often pose as comprehensive health clinics and attract women with advertisements that appear to promise neutral pregnancy-related and confidential counseling as well as “free” pregnancy tests. They may imitate health clinics by using a name similar to that of a nearby clinic, such as “Women’s Clinic” or “Women’s Resource Center.” They may list themselves in phonebooks or on the web under “abortion,” “family-planning,” “clinics,” or “medical.” Taking on names similar to those clinics or improperly listing themselves in print or online are intentional attempts to mislead women by appearing to be full-service clinics and draw them away from a clinic that offers abortion services.

CPCs are Not Honest About the Services They Offer
When women call CPCs to ask about services and prices, they are often met with vague, incomplete, or inaccurate answers. Often, the main goal of the CPC volunteer on the phone is to get a woman to visit the CPC in person, instead of answering questions about which services they provide over the phone. Even when met with direct questions about abortion services, CPC volunteers may avoid the question, focusing on the goal of getting a woman to visit the CPC in person. The combination of misleading advertisements and evasive phone conversations can lead women to believe they will be provided with all of their reproductive health options.

The “Free Services” CPCs Offer Come at a Price
Most notably, CPCs advertise “free” pregnancy tests. These tests are generally the same ones available over-the-counter at the pharmacy rather than those conducted by a health clinic or doctor’s office, although CPCs do not disclose this. Some CPCs even offer “free” ultrasounds, which can otherwise cost at least $100, as an emotional, rather than medical, tool. Further, these “free” services may be contingent on signing a waiver, receiving “counseling,” or listening to a presentation and thus not truly “free.” Offering and administering these medical tests can lend authority and credibility to CPC volunteers’ discussion of health information provided in counseling sessions and presentations about women’s reproductive health.

CPCs Do Not Provide Honest and Accurate Medical Information
When CPCs provide information to women about birth control and abortion care, they often provide inaccurate or misleading information. For example, some CPCs incorrectly state that condoms are ineffective in preventing pregnancy and the transmission of STIs, or exaggerate the failure rates of certain forms of birth control. CPCs typically provide inaccurate depictions of the abortion procedure and abortion providers, using graphic images to frighten and misinform women about their reproductive health options. In addition, CPC volunteers and pamphlets often supply false information about the emotional and health consequences of abortion care, such as claiming links between abortion and breast cancer or infertility. Many tell women about “post-abortion syndrome,” although scientific evidence shows that abortion is not associated with long-term psychological harm. This information is meant to coerce women into continuing their pregnancies and prevents them from making informed decisions based on complete and accurate information.

Most CPCs Are Unregulated and Unlicensed
Some CPCs may be staffed or supervised by medical professionals, or have licenses to provide limited medical services. Many CPC volunteers, however, have neither medical training nor licenses though they may give the impression that they do by providing medical information, pregnancy tests, or ultrasounds. CPC volunteers also may dress in medical “scrubs” or white coats to further the mistaken impression that they are medical professionals. CPCs may also ask clients to provide personal information, as a physician’s office would, but are not subject to medical confidentiality rules that health clinics must observe.  Further, because they are not medically-licensed, CPCs are not bound by state laws requiring licensed medical professionals to provide medically accurate information or services that meet the standard of care.

CPCs Are Targeting Minority Communities
CPCs have launched initiatives to target women of color, with the singular goal of decreasing abortions in minority communities. In doing so, CPCs are showing profound disrespect for these women and the reality of their lives.  Rather than helping minority communities, CPCs may leave women of color in worse situations and may harm their health.

CPCs’ Deceptive Tactics Harm Women
By appearing to be health clinics and seeming to offer medical services, CPCs give women the impression that they have received medical care when in fact they have not. This prevents women from making informed health care decisions. Further, because a woman is deceived into thinking she has been provided adequate health care, she may delay seeking actual care. This might result in a failure to diagnose a woman’s medical condition or a problem with the fetus, an increased risk of medical complications, or additional health care costs if a delay results in a woman needing a more advanced abortion procedure.

CPCs’ Deceptive Tactics Violate Existing Laws
When CPCs engage in deceptive practices they may be violating state consumer protection laws. Every state has a consumer protection law that prohibits businesses from engaging in unfair and deceptive practices. These laws have been used to advocate against the misleading practices of CPCs. For example, in Texas, a CPC was found to have violated the state’s consumer protection law by advertising under “Abortion Information and Services” in the phonebook and by leading individuals to believe it was an abortion clinic when it was not. The CPC was required to disclose its anti-abortion stance in future advertisements.

Legislators Are Attempting to Hold CPCs Accountable
Local governments in Baltimore and Montgomery County, Maryland; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco, California have also passed laws that directly target CPCs’ deceptive practices by requiring CPCs to post information about the services they do and do not provide. In response, CPCs have brought suits challenging these ordinances.

Conclusion
CPCs should be held accountable when they are dishonest and should not be allowed to engage in behaviors that hurt women.  All women deserve complete, accurate, and unbiased health care information. 

For more information on CPCs please visit www.nwlc.org/cpctoolkit. If you have ever gone to a CPC and are interested in filing a complaint, please contact us at 1(855)CPC-FACT or cpcfact@nwlc.org. Also let us know if you have already filed a complaint, are interested in sharing your CPC story, or have questions.