Seattle Legislation Aims to Stop “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” From Lying Quite So Much

By Erica C. Barnett

At a press conference and bill signing for three pieces of legislation aimed at protecting people who seek abortions in Seattle, City Councilmember Tammy Morales said she had also introduced legislation that would bar so-called crisis pregnancy centers—fake clinics run by religious anti-abortion groups—from false advertising at their locations inside city limits.

CPCs, also known as “limited-service pregnancy centers,” use deceptive tactics to get pregnant people in the door, using phrases like “pregnancy alternatives” to suggest they provide abortions. Inside, staffers attempt to persuade people to go through with their pregnancies, offering “non-diagnostic ultrasounds” and the promise of “free” baby-related items in the future.

According to a 2021 report by the Alliance, a coalition of groups supporting reproductive and gender justice, these “free” items were almost always contingent on participation in Christian programming, such as “counseling, Bible studies, abstinence seminars, video screenings, or other ideological CPC programming.” Despite their baby-centric advertising, they virtually never offer contraception, STI testing, or prenatal care of any kind.

Morales’ bill, which her Neighborhoods, Education, Civil Rights, and Culture Committee approved on Friday, would bar CPCs in Seattle from making misleading or false claims about their services, or to claim or imply that they provide abortions, prenatal care, or other services that they don’t provide. The bill also emphasizes, in a “whereas” clause, the city’s commitment to state law protecting the privacy of people who seek abortion care.

On Monday, Morales said she hoped the bill would help address some of the privacy issues associated with these fake clinics, which collect personal medical information from their “patients” but are not subject to federal medical privacy laws. If someone came to a CPC from a state where abortion was illegal and told a CPC worker they planned to go through with an abortion in Washington state, that CPC could have collected enough information to report that person to the authorities in their home state, for example.

“The potential is that they could use that information to track who is seeking abortion care, and this is particularly dangerous for people who might be coming from states where this is illegal now, so it’s trying to address both of those things,” Morales said.

There are only about three CPCs (two CareNet outposts and a group called 3W, which has denied it is a crisis pregnancy center) currently operating in Seattle, plus a pregnancy center operated by Catholic Community Services; Morales said she was also aware of a “mobile clinic” operating in South Seattle. However, many more CPCs are located around the Puget Sound region, including Next Step Pregnancy Services (Lynnwood), the Pregnancy Resource Clinic (Everett), Pregnancy Resource Services (Bremerton), Pregnancy Aid (Auburn, Des Moines, and Kent), and nine other CareNet outlets.

Morales said her legislation (co-sponsored by Councilmember Lisa Herbold) is modeled on a San Francisco law—the Pregnancy Information Disclosure and Protection Ordinance, passed in 2011. That law bans CPCs in San Francisco from misleading the public about what services they provide.

Sate legislation would be more effective still, because it would apply everywhere, including rural areas where anti-abortion sentiment is more prevalent than it is in liberal Seattle. No one in the state legislature has introduced a bill related to crisis pregnancy centers since 2012, when a proposal to prevent CPCs from misleading pregnant people died in committee.

A more sweeping 2015 law, known as the Reproductive FACT Act, required crisis pregnancy centers to inform potential clients that California has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to reproductive health care, prenatal care, and abortion; it also required unlicensed CPCs to disclose that they were not medical facilities. CPCs challenged the law and the US Supreme Court struck it down in a 5-4 decision in 2015.

In 2017, the Seattle/King County Board of Health passed a rule requiring crisis pregnancy centers to post two 11-by-17-inch signs saying “This facility is not a health care facility.” King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski cited the Supreme Court’s decision on the FACT Act a year later as one reason the county didn’t propose a more sweeping law. County Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who was defeated last year, was the only board of health member to vote against the rule; before the vote, she circulated through the crowd in council chambers, passing out anti-abortion literature.

Seattle’s legislation, which is certain to pass, will have less impact than would countywide legislation imposing similar rules; state legislation would be more effective still, because it would apply everywhere, including rural areas where anti-abortion sentiment is more prevalent than it is in liberal Seattle. No one in the state legislature has introduced a bill related to crisis pregnancy centers since 2012, when a proposal to prevent CPCs from misleading pregnant people died in committee.

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