OAKLAND, Calif. ― The city council here has tightened regulations around pregnancy clinics that try to fool prospective patients with advertisements falsely suggesting that they perform abortions.
The ordinance, passed last week, makes Oakland the second U.S. city to target advertising by so-called crisis pregnancy centers that mask an anti-abortion agenda, according to organizations promoting abortion rights. San Francisco passed a similar ordinance in 2011.
Some such clinics have used billboards and online ads to trick women into thinking that they perform abortions or offer other emergency contraceptive care, according to Amy Everitt, NARAL Pro-Choice California director. She said she’s troubled that searching Google for information about abortions in Oakland brings up results for nearby centers that don’t provide the service.
“When women are seeking reproductive health care, it is time-sensitive and urgent,” said Everitt. “When you put an entity or organization in the way that’s specifically targeting them to deceive them into wasting their time and delay them from accessing other care, what that creates for the women and families of California is a public harm.”
Anti-abortion centers, also known as limited-service pregnancy centers, outnumber Planned Parenthood’s 115 clinics in California, a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman said. An exact count is difficult because many centers are not registered with authorities, and they often change names. A list compiled by California ProLife Council includes 190 crisis pregnancy centers.
The problem extends to websites that include inaccurate medical information about pregnancies, or that overstate the dangers of abortions and the morning-after pill. Oakland officials representing city council and the city attorney highlighted passages on OptionOnline.org, which refers women to crisis pregnancy centers in the Bay Area, as the kind of misleading medical advice that might run afoul of the law.
“Many pregnancies result in miscarriage so an abortion might not be necessary,” the website says. Another passage warns that the Plan B and emergency contraception pills “can actually hurt you if you take them while you are pregnant.”
Violators can be fined and sued by Oakland’s city attorney if they refuse to take down contested ads.
Support Circle, a licensed medical clinic with three sites in the Bay Area, including one in Oakland, is one facility that has relied on deceptive advertising to shade its anti-abortion stance, according to Oakland officials.
“Support Circle is a safe place where you can sort out your thoughts and feelings in a non-pressured environment, and make healthy, well-informed choices in line with your core values,” the clinic website says. The organization counsels against abortion.
“Clients can meet with medical professionals and receive information about early pregnancy symptoms, the morning after pill, abortion, the abortion pill, emergency contraception, Plan B, Ella, pregnancy and drugs, pregnancy and smoking, pregnancy and alcohol, and miscarriage,” the Support Circle website continues.
Support Circle did not respond to The Huffington Post’s inquiries.
A conservative legal organization that has represented crisis pregnancy centers said Oakland’s new law is flawed. The ordinance assumes women don’t research the services offered at crisis pregnancy centers before going to one, said Brad Dacus, Pacific Justice Institute president.
“My fear is that abortion clinics like Planned Parenthood will succeed in achieving their end goal that women in crises will not receive compassionate counseling to alternatives and that more women will abort their unborn babies,” Dacus said. He said the law was motivated by Planned Parenthood’s desire for more customers.
County health officials encouraged Oakland to pass the law, saying crisis pregnancy centers interfere with prenatal care in other ways. Some of the clinics target residents of low-income neighborhoods and force women to transfer to doctors and clinics 20 weeks to 24 weeks into their pregnancies, when it’s too late to obtain an abortion, according to a June letter from Alameda County Public Health Department officials. Doctors and clinics that pick up these patients have complained that the crisis pregnancy centers delay sharing critical lab results and other medical records, according to the letter.
“We do not have the resources to compete with the misleading advertising of the crisis pregnancy centers,” the letter says.
San Francisco’s law was challenged by an anti-abortion center that contended it violated free speech rights. A federal judge upheld the ordinance in 2015, saying commercial speech can be regulated.
“Oakland respects the activists’ right to express their views and counsel against abortion. If their message is truly compelling, they should have no problem being honest about what they do and do not offer,” City Attorney Barbara Parker said in a statement. “If they refuse to be honest, the City Attorney will have the power to sue violators to hold them accountable.”