Connecticut legislators advanced a bill that would curb deceptive advertising by the state’s anti-choice pregnancy centers.
The legislation, known as An Act Concerning Deceptive Marketing Practices of Limited Service Pregnancy Centers, passed the Public Health Committee on March 29.
Conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that a California effort to regulate anti-choice clinics, commonly known as crisis pregnancy centers, was unconstitutional, though the Connecticut legislation isn’t nearly as far reaching. The Connecticut bill would ban advertising “any statement concerning any pregnancy-related service … that is false, misleading or deceptive.”
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Reproductive rights advocates expect Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D), a strong proponent of abortion rights, to sign the bill if it clears the Democratic-held legislature. Around 25 anti-choice pregnancy centers operate in Connecticut, which has only 18 licensed family planning clinics, according NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut.
“I’m really excited about the momentum we have for this,” Sarah Croucher, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, told Rewire.News. “We found that we have pro-choice Republicans in Connecticut who understand that the centers are a problem in the way they present themselves to people. So we are excited about this moving forward with strong political support, including some bipartisan support, and we are excited that Connecticut can set policy for the nation on this issue.”
Croucher testified in favor of the bill, which is aimed at limited service pregnancy centers (CPCs) that use deceptive practices, like appearing to offer unbiased counseling and abortion services when they do not. Cases like this often pit right-to-know health-care advocates against anti-choice activists who claim free speech. This measure is modeled after San Francisco’s 2011 truth-in-advertising law, advocates said.
Providers at reproductive health clinics have long complained that these anti-choice pregnancy centers distract their patients with false advertising. In Hartford, for example, an anti-choice center opened up 30 feet from the Hartford GYN, a licensed abortion clinic operated by The Women’s Centers, and often tried to block and redirect patients headed to the licensed clinic.
“At all of The Women’s Centers locations, including Hartford GYN, we have seen firsthand the dangers that fake women’s health centers pose when deceiving patients and delaying their access to time-sensitive medical care in their efforts to convince them not to have an abortion,” Roxanne Sutocky, regional director of community engagement at The Women’s Centers, said in an email. “At Hartford GYN Center, we frequently care for patients [who] report experiencing confusion and delays because they were deceived into going to the wrong office or were given misleading information about their pregnancy options—occurrences which have notably increased since the St. Gerard Center for Life opened as Hartford Women’s Center just 30 feet from our Hartford GYN Center’s front door. We have also experienced an increase in aggressive protester activity outside of the Center.”
Hartford officials responded to the complaints by rolling out an ordinance last October prohibiting deceptive advertising practices and requiring the centers to disclose if they do not have licenses medical provider on staff, or face a $100 fine per day.
Baltimore and Montgomery County, Maryland were the first to enact ordinances requiring signs in the waiting rooms of limited-service pregnancy centers, telling patients that such centers do not provide or make referrals for abortion or birth-control services. Both ordinances were later blocked by courts.
As the assault on reproductive rights continues, so has the proliferation of anti-choice clinics, many of which are funded by Republican lawmakers sympathetic to their cause: tricking people out of seeking abortion services. There are more than 4,000 of these anti-choice clinics across the United States, and 32 states allow “Choose Life” license plates that siphon public money towards anti-choice clinics or adoption services. A 2018 Rewire.News analysis found anti-choice clinics in 14 states were set to receive more than $40 million in taxpayer dollars. The Trump administration, staffed with anti-choice activists turned government officials, has funneled millions in taxpayer funds to anti-choice pregnancy centers.
One anti-choice clinic allegedly went as far as locking a patient in an exam room, according to a social media post from a clinic receptionist. In 2015, an undercover investigation by NARAL Pro-Choice confirmed that anti-choice pregnancy centers in California routinely lied to pregnant people.
Legislators in several states have taken steps to make people aware of the deceptive practices used by these clinics, which are staffed with people who often claim to have medical backgrounds and pretend to provide abortion services.
New York rolled out a public campaign and website called “Know Your Options” last summer to educate residents about anti-choice clinics. But California’s abortion services disclosure law, or the Reproductive FACT Act, was struck down last summer by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision. The California law required licensed centers to disclose to pregnant people that the state provides access to reproductive health care including abortion, and required unlicensed centers to disclose that they are unlicensed. A similar law was also struck down in Hawaii.
Connecticut’s bill still needs to pass the house and senate, both controlled by Democrats. A majority of the Public Health Committee voted in favor; Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and state Attorney General William Tong both gave testimony in favor, advocates said.
“Whether someone is seeking abortion care, prenatal services, or contraception, fake women’s health centers cause unnecessary delays that needlessly imperil a patient’s health by deceptively diverting patients away from legitimate reproductive health care providers,” Sutocky said. “Unfortunately, the deceptive advertising practices employed by fake women’s health centers do a great deal to undermine the patient-provider relationship, making it more challenging for pregnant people to access the care they need.”