Inside the chicly decorated clinic, the receptionist wore bright purple scrubs. There were no signs on the wall or brochures to indicate that Caitlin was not in a real doctor’s office.
The 23-year-old graduate student, home in San Antonio for Christmas break, had found the place by Googling “free STD testing San Antonio.” She usually got tested at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Austin, where she attended the University of Texas, but she was looking for a clinic near her parents’ house. The Google search pointed her to a woman’s health center in a ritzy part of town near a hospital. It was called Any Woman Can, and now here she was, having produced a urine sample, following a middle-aged woman into a private room for what Caitlin thought would be a conversation about the test results.
Instead, the woman “started asking me a lot of really emotionally intense and invasive questions,” Caitlin said.
“The first and last name of my current partner and where he lives; what age I lost my virginity; whether I had been molested as a child, or if I’d ever been raped or had an abortion. I said, ‘Is this really medically important? Is it OK if I don’t answer?’”
The woman continued to read questions from her script, each of which Caitlin declined to answer. Eventually she informed Caitlin that she had chlamydia.
Caitlin had never been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection before and naturally had many questions about what chlamydia is and how to treat it. But the woman “kept trying to steer the conversation away from the medical stuff.” She couldn’t prescribe the necessary antibiotic nor was there anyone on staff who could. She couldn’t even refer Caitlin to a doctor for treatment.
Upon leaving the clinic, Caitlin realized she had to find a real doctor and make a second appointment for an STI test, because she didn’t trust the first. “I went to the parking lot and cried for a while. I felt so gross, so deeply weirded out.”
Any Woman Can is part of a nationwide network of over 3,000 “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) established by evangelical Christians to dissuade women from having abortions. They masquerade as women’s health clinics ― advertising free STD testing and pregnancy services, dressing their staffers in scrubs and setting themselves up near hospitals ― but they often have no licensed medical professionals on staff.
These centers ― “fake clinics,” as reproductive rights groups call them ― are the subject of the U.S. Supreme Court’s first abortion-related case under President Donald Trump. When arguments begin Tuesday, an attorney representing the Christian-run Pregnancy Care Clinic in El Cajon, California, will argue before the high court that California violated the clinic’s constitutional right to free speech by enacting a law that requires centers that are licensed as family planning facilities to notify women that the state offers free or low-cost birth control and abortion services. The law also requires pregnancy centers to disclose if they have no medical providers on staff.
I went to the parking lot and cried for a while. I felt so gross, so deeply weirded out. Caitlin, 23
“They’re forcing us to use our walls as a billboard to promote abortion,” Pregnancy Care Clinic Executive Director Josh McClure told Reuters. The clinic is being represented by the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates legal organization (NIFLA).
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) will defend the state’s 2015 Reproductive FACT Act, which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld last year.
“Information is power,” Becerra said in a statement, “and all women should have access to the information they need when making personal health care decisions.”
It’s fitting that NIFLA v. Becerra will be the first abortion case to land on the Supreme Court’s docket in the Trump era. The CPCs are Trumpish things― hostile to expertise and insincere about their supposed mission. (Meanwhile, Trump’s administration is slashing funds from family planning and teen sex ed programs that have been shown to reduce unintended pregnancies and redirecting that money to abstinence-only programs, which don’t work.)
Didactic pregnancy centers, which date back to the 1960s, share Trump’s antagonistic relationship to facts. They push the myths that abortion leads to suicide and drug addiction, that condoms don’t work because they’re “naturally porous” and that birth control causes hair loss, memory loss, headaches, weight gain and breast cancer. Their advertisements ― often carrying slogans like “We inform, you decide” ― give the illusion that they’re disinterested purveyors of expert information and medical treatment, but in fact they are mostly interested in lecturing women about sex and abortion.
Mel G., 40, from southeast Missouri, told HuffPost that she visited a CPC at the age of 13 because her grandfather had been sexually abusing her and she feared she was pregnant. She lived about 65 miles from St. Louis and was limited to traveling by bike, so the religious-based pregnancy center was the only place she could find within biking distance that advertised pregnancy services.
Mel’s pregnancy test came back negative, but she said that no one at the clinic seemed to notice that she was a child rape survivor or offered her any help. “The lady told me I should be going to church and thanking God that I wasn’t pregnant and beg for forgiveness for even having to show up,” Mel said. “The shame that I experienced really compounded what I was going through and made it harder for me to reach out for help.”
CPCs believe they are providing an important public service by counseling and protecting women from making decisions they will regret. Requiring them to post information about state abortion and birth control services, they argue, is akin to forcing a McDonald’s to post directions to the nearest Burger King.
“Information about abortion is just about everywhere, so the government doesn’t need to punish pro-life centers for declining to advertise for the very act they can’t promote,” said Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the CPCs.
Abortion rights groups argue that women deserve to have all the facts about a health center in order to make the best decisions for themselves. “The principle here is simple,” said Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California. “Nobody’s ideology should ever be allowed to get between a woman and her doctor.”
The stakes are high for this case, which will be the first to indicate how the current Supreme Court may treat abortion rights for decades. And free speech questions are tricky: If the court strikes down this California law, the decision could also have implications for laws in red states that require doctors to convey state-sponsored anti-abortion messages.
For women like Caitlin and Mel who have been tricked by CPCs, the case is pretty simple.
“My life wasn’t ruined because of this,” Caitlin said. “But I would have loved some clear indication of what I was getting myself into.”