Last April, Shari Plunkett, the founder of First Resort, a San Francisco Bay Area chain of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, sent an e-mail to First Resort followers. “With the closing of five abortion clinics in the Bay Area in March, our call volume has never been higher,” she began. “Women are calling in survival mode, with utter panic in their voices. They are clinging to abortion because it’s the only ‘help’ they know.” She continued, “‘Planned Parenthood has closed’, they tell us, ‘I need an abortion, can you help me?’ ” Of these abortion clinics closing, Plunkett later added, “This is one of the most amazing opportunities we’ve ever had to serve abortion minded women.”
First Resort clinics, of course, do not provide abortions, nor do they refer for them. Indeed, like most crisis pregnancy centers, their primary function is to dissuade pregnant women from choosing abortion. Many crisis pregnancy centers employ deceptive means to lure women into their doors, and offer misleading or inaccurate information about abortion to women once they’re inside. It is this confusion, and the culture of orchestrated deception that accompanies crisis pregnancy centers, that has spurred a number of cities to propose, and sometimes pass, legislation to require crisis pregnancy centers to disclose basic factual information about their services. Anti-abortion advocates assert that such legislation should be thrown out as First Amendment violations and, as some of these ordinances get struck down, it seems some federal judges agree.
* * *
Crisis pregnancy centers are nothing new. The first crisis pregnancy center was established in Hawaii in 1967, by Robert Pearson, after the state repealed its laws criminalizing abortion. “Obviously, we’re fighting Satan,” Pearson said of his anti-abortion work, “A killer, who in this case is the girl who wants to kill her baby, has no right to information that will help her [do that].” Typically associated with Christian charities, these anti-choice organizations received $30 million in federal funds between 2001 and 2005, according to a 2006 report by California Democrat Henry Waxman. CPCs continued to receive millions in federal funds under George W. Bush, to say nothing of state funding through programs like “Choose Life” license plates. Although much of the federal funding for crisis pregnancy centers has been cut under Obama, his National Fatherhood Initiative directs funds toward CPCs, as Sarah Posner has reported.
Today there are estimated to be more than 4,000 CPCs in the United States, dwarfing the estimated 1,800 abortion providers, and the vast majority of these centers attempt to mislead women about the services they provide. Some CPCs employ misleading advertising on billboards and public transportation to get women in the door, while others buy ads on Google that are clearly meant to deceive women who are in search of abortion. For example, if you Google “abortion San Francisco,” or “abortion services San Francisco,” an advertisement for local CPC chain First Resort reading “Abortion info” appears at the top of the results page. Neither the ad nor First Resort’s website itself mentions First Resort’s ideological slant. CPCs frequently open across the street or near abortion clinics, and once women are inside CPCs, the deception continues. Although most crisis pregnancy centers are not medical clinics, they cultivate the appearance of being licensed medical clinics—staff members often dress in scrubs, provide ultrasounds and pregnancy tests, collect personal health and insurance information and even inform women that they’ve received actual prenatal medical care. NARAL Pro-Choice America investigations across the country have documented widespread dissemination of misleading and false information, including telling women that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, infertility and mental-health problems—all claims that have been medically refuted.