U.S. Supreme Court protects ‘fake women’s health centers’

A Supreme Court decision struck down a law requiring "crisis pregnancy centers" to post what services they offer, and Planned Parenthood is worried.

A Supreme Court decision struck down a law requiring "crisis pregnancy centers" to post what services they offer, and Planned Parenthood is worried. Star Tribune

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court made it even harder for women to get abortions. The case, NIFLA v. Becerra, was about a 2015 California law that concerned “crisis pregnancy centers.”

Andrea Ledger, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, has a different name for them: “fake women’s health centers.”

“Really, these clinics have the purpose of dissuading women from seeking abortions,” Ledger says.

Crisis pregnancy centers specifically market themselves to women seeking abortions. Their sales pitch includes ads for “free pregnancy tests,” with the accompanying mantra: “If you’re considering abortion, call this number.”

But abortion is the one thing they uniformly don’t offer. What they do offer: A lot of often unfounded advice about abortions.

NARAL volunteers have gone undercover at different locations. The patient is usually whisked to an examination room, where she can’t talk to the people who came to support her. A staff member offers an ultrasound. The idea, Ledger says, is that an image will dissuade patients from seeking an abortion.

Then comes talk of the “health risks.” Clinicians have told undercover patients that abortion will lead to infertility, breast cancer, the end of their marriages, or suicide. They talked about “abortion regret syndrome,” an emotionally crippling guilt suffered in the aftermath. None of this, she says, has been backed by science.

These undercover patients would sit in clinics sometimes for hours. Staffers would string them along with the promise that, eventually, they’d be referred to get an abortion, but never actually did.

The California law challenged by the Supreme Court would have required these clinics to be more upfront about what they offer and what they don’t. They’d have to post the services they provide, and what other services are available at other clinics in the state. 

According to NARAL’s last tally, there are about 93 of these centers in Minnesota -- compared to just five clinics that offer abortion. But the ranks are always swelling and contracting as clinics pop up and shut down, sometimes reopening under different names.

There is one place they can be consistently found: right outside clinics that do provide abortions.

Planned Parenthood in St. Paul frequently sees patients that have just been to Abria, the clinic across the street, where they get a run-around similar to the one Ledger describes. Spokesperson Jennifer Aulwes says a clinic told one patient she was seven weeks into her pregnancy. After her examination at Planned Parenthood, they found out she was actually 14 or 15 weeks in.

“They try to make them believe that they have more time,” Aulwes says. “It’s something an actual health care provider would morally and ethically never do.”

Abria executive director Nancy Utoft says she can’t speak to incidents like the one Aulwes describes. She says Abria offers ultrasounds, pregnancy testing, and STI testing, as well as information about pregnancy and abortions from the Minnesota Department of Health. She also says it’s clearly stated on their website that they don’t offer abortions or referrals to abortion clinics.

“Our discussions with women is so they have the full information, and it’s their choice to make.”

It’s unclear how all this will shake out for clinics like Planned Parenthood.

“We don’t know exactly what the impact [of the ruling] will be,” Aulwes says. But there will be an impact. There has to be when your enemy is a crosswalk away.