Misconception at The Supreme Court

Fake news dominates the headlines, but if you’re a woman with an unplanned pregnancy, you face a more immediate problem — being duped by “fake” women’s health clinics.

These are clinics that are run by anti-abortion advocates. In many states, they outnumber licensed medical reproductive health clinics. The problem many people have with these so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" is that they often masquerade as agenda-free women's reproductive health medical clinics.

(You can see how one young woman was duped by one of these centers in VICE News' piece above.)

This came across my radar a few weeks ago after I met Jordan Modell, a friend-of-a-friend, at a lunch in San Francisco. He'd spent four months travelling around states in the South talking to grassroots organizations. I'd never heard of crisis pregnancy centers before I met him, and neither had a lot of other people.

Most importantly, he made me understand that the people disproportionately affected by these policies are the very poorest of the poor, who need to scrape together the funds and time to travel to the increasingly distant women's health clinics to obtain agenda-free support at a very vulnerable and agonizing time in their lives.

I found that this is supported by a recently published study that suggests that women who want an abortion, but are denied one, are more likely to spend years living in poverty than women who go ahead and have abortions.

Giving birth to an unwanted child quadrupled the chances that a new mother and her child would live below the federal poverty line, according to this report, which was published this January in the American Journal of Public Health.

Modell has even started to work on a map to try and help people to distinguish between a crisis pregnancy center and a licensed medical reproductive health clinic.

"People who really need these services need something incredibly simple," he said. "They're finding it tough to sort out what's real, and what's not real -- especially the ones who are scared and can't talk to anybody. And if you're painting a picture of what some of these folks look like -- especially the most scared ones: they figure out that they're pregnant, and they can't tell the person who got them pregnant. They can't tell their parents. They can't trust most of their friends. They're trying to find a way to raise money to be able to do this. It's those folks I'm most concerned about."

These crisis pregnancy centers have been active for years. However, California's state legislature decided to take action against these deceptive practices in 2015 by requiring crisis pregnancy centers to post notices in their waiting rooms disclosing that free or low-cost reproductive health and abortion services are available in the state. The law also required unlicensed crisis pregnancy centers to state that they're unlicensed.

The National Institute for Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA,) which has helped these centers to proliferate, immediately sued the state, charging that the law violates the centers' free speech rights.

This case has significant national impact. California isn’t the first state or government entity to try something like this. Faith-based anti-abortion groups have beat back other attempts to force some transparency onto CPCs in Maryland, Oregon, Washington.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for the California case NIFLA v. Becerra next Tuesday, March 20.

Today, around 2,700 CPCs operate across the United States, according to the anti-abortion research group The Charlotte Lozier Institute.

That’s almost quadruple the number of full-service women’s reproductive health clinics in the United States, according to Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List.

Several organizations have worked to address this phenomenon, short of opening more medical clinics themselves. There's the National Network of Abortion Funds and several other kinds of local grassroots groups in addition to national organizations such as Planned Parenthood. More controversially, there's apparently a whole underground abortion network that provides abortions at home.

Back to the case in front of SCOTUS, there are obviously wider, and deeply troubling truth-in-advertising issues, as Priscilla J Smith of Yale Law School points out:

Consider an advertisement posted by Christian Scientists, without affiliation, stating “Chest Pain, Blood Loss, Broken Bones? Medical Treatment at Exit 8!” and directing patients to an office where they receive only prayers for healing. Surely the government could act to prevent harm to patients before it occurs, especially if the Christian Scientists have compounded the deception by designing the office to look like a medical facility, with employees in lab coats collecting patients’ health information, suggesting that medical treatment is available, just behind the curtain. A simple disclosure on the ad and at the clinic stating that the clinic is not a licensed medical provider and has no licensed medical personnel available to provide treatment would be very little to ask. And this would be so whether or not the Christian Scientists offered their prayers or “counseling” for free. In fact, a sign saying “Free Emergency Medical Treatment Offered Here!” only increases the power of the fraud by targeting it at low-income individuals desperate for medical care.

Newsweek has a good preview of the case, and the First Amendment implications here.