IIn the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, President Biden signed a Executive Decree directing federal agencies to consider ways to protect access to abortion. Three weeks later, at first meeting of the new inter-agency working group on access to reproductive health care, he announced another decree aimed at assisting patients who travel out of state to obtain abortions. That same week, Kansas deeply defeated an effort to remove abortion protections from his state’s constitution.
For those who support access to abortion care, these are positive steps. But they ignore a major threat: the thousands of fake abortion clinics, also known as Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs), which operate across the country. These centers hijack, delay and deceive people seeking abortion care, exploiting their personal information while accepting million dollars of public funding.
Although crisis pregnancy centers have been working for decadesthey now pose a particular threat to the ongoing work to secure abortion access after Dobbs.
A depth study by The Alliance: State Advocates for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, the organizations I work with, have shown that crisis pregnancy centers are often linked to national or global anti-abortion organizations and many share a playbook : they pretend to be an abortion or women’s health clinic, often set up right next to real clinics, and frequently use confusing names. But they don’t provide abortion services, referrals to abortion services, or even accurate information. These fake clinics aim to reach low-income people facing unwanted pregnancies by advertising free services. Targeting is particularly troubling because to research shows that people who are denied abortion care—and their families—experience worse health and socioeconomic outcomes than those who have access to the care they need.
Although crisis pregnancy centers claim to provide medical information, they are not covered by HIPAA privacy and security rules. This is because, despite what they claim to be, they are not considered healthcare facilities.
In the post-Dobbs era, crisis pregnancy centers — and their websites and hotlines — aim to mislead people trying to find their way to abortion care, especially those who are traveling from restrictive states that can make arrangements online or by phone. For example, as abortion providers are forced to travel to less restrictive states like New Mexico, patients from surrounding states will have to travel there; the CPCs are therefore rapidly expanding their presence in New Mexico as well. Most of these fake abortion clinics collect the personal and contact information of every caller or visitor online or in person, information that can be shared with their networks of anti-abortion parents and used for surveillance, harassment and prosecution, including in the potential patient’s home state.
The workers at these centers tell people who want an abortion that there is no need to rush or worry because they have plenty of time and will probably miscarry anyway. They can provide false or confusing ultrasound results, bec misinformation about abortion, and providing substandard “care”. Staff without medical training can offer pharmacy pregnancy tests, non-medical ultrasounds, and a bogus and dangerous “cure” for medical abortion. They rarely provide prenatal care or even offer referrals for it, delaying what can be critical care if the pregnancy comes to term. They promise to provide baby supplies such as diapers and formula, but require customers to attend religious indoctrination videos or classes before they even receive minimal supplies.
And the more states restrict abortion, the more the CPCs will deceive people.
In many states, these bogus clinics have received embezzled public funds of safety net programs that people facing unplanned pregnancies really need. fake clinics claim now they will provide maternal health care and parenting support to more people in the post-Dobbs era. National anti-abortion organizations have recently approached 22 governors on increasing public funding for crisis pregnancy centres. This funding is often provided by the federal government Temporary assistance to needy families program.
Here’s what the Biden-Harris administration should do next to counter the impact of crisis pregnancy centers:
Educate the public. Any federal effort to mitigate the damage caused by the Dobbs decision should explicitly warn people about pregnancy centers in crisis. The administration has a powerful tool in the website for the public reproductiverights.gov. This website should include links to privately created sites Maps and data base designed to alert consumers to CPCs in their communities.
state attorneys general California and Massachusetts have already issued warnings to consumers about the limited and misleading nature of the services provided by crisis pregnancy centres; the federal government could and should do the same. If the FBI and the Department of Justice can warn consumers about Scams related to Covid-19they and other agencies can do the same for fake health clinics.
Close CPC vulnerabilities. Federal powers should be deployed to prevent pregnancy centers in crisis from impersonating medical providers, misleading consumers, and using personal information for surveillance, harassment, and lawsuits. Fake health clinics should not be able to share and exploit the personal health information of people who contact them. The Federal Department of Health and Human Services Civil Rights Officewho enforces the privacy and security provisions of HIPAA, understands why this is critical, having recently issued directives for consumers on how to protect health information on a cell phone or tablet.
Federal agencies should explore other possible avenues for protecting access to abortion. For instance, recently introduced legislation would order the Federal Trade Commission to prescribe rules prohibiting misinformation in the advertising of abortion services. Book Laws protect the personal information of people receiving benefits through public programs: These protections could be strengthened to prevent CPCs from misusing taxpayers’ money.
Provide the real support CPCs only claim to provide. It is not enough for policymakers to simply advocate for convenient access to abortion. As reproductive justice leaders say, every human being deserves “the human right to retain personal bodily autonomy, to have children, to be childless, and to raise the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” This human right seems increasingly elusive to many Americans. Blacks, Latinx, and Native Americans in the American Experience disproportionate harm and death related to pregnancy due to societal and health system failures. Crisis pregnancy centers add to both systemic failures and harms.
The Biden-Harris administration, through federal agencies and funding mechanisms, must explore all policy avenues to expand access to meaningful reproductive and pregnancy care, as well as parenting support and supplies. . At the local level, genuine reproductive health providers, food pantries, diaper banks and other community organizations are genuinely committed to helping people make their own reproductive choices. Many are already working to provide access to free or low-cost baby care and supplies – delivered without coercion or harassment. Closing the huge gap between need and reality in low-income communities is a heavy-handed, long-term effort that must include bold actions at local, state, and national levels, like this one proposal of the Biden-Harris administration to address the current maternal health crisis.
CPCs pose a direct threat to efforts to protect access to abortion, improve reproductive and maternal health care, and support underserved communities. The Biden-Harris administration should act to help Americans recognize and avoid bogus abortion clinics, close loopholes that shield them from scrutiny and accountability, and ensure public funds support services necessary, not deceptive practices.
Susannah Baruch is a lawyer and consultant who works with reproductive rights, reproductive health, and reproductive justice organizations, including Alliance organizations.