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national | REPORTS

Federally Funded Lies
Legislation aims to curb deceptive advertising by crisis pregnancy centers

The stories follow a familiar script: A woman who suspects she might be pregnant visits a local agency that advertises “abortion options,” believing she’ll be counseled on a full range of choices. But this place doesn’t give referrals to abortion providers, or information on contraception, and doesn’t staff medical professionals. Instead, volunteers in lab coats perform an ultrasound on the woman, show her graphic pictures of aborted fetuses, and insist that an abortion would put her at risk of infection and emotional trauma. Finally, she’s handed tiny baby booties and sent home, misinformed and distraught.

There are as many as 4,000 of these so-called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) throughout the U.S., many of which mask their anti-abortion counseling agenda with advertising that promises legitimate medical care. It is this misleading promotion that Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) has challenged by reintroducing the Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women’s Services Act. The bill, which died in committee after being first proposed by her last year, would require the Federal Trade Commission to enforce truth-in-advertising standards for organizations claiming to offer abortion services.

“When women seek out medical information, they shouldn’t have to dodge intentionally deceptive establishments,” says Maloney. “They shouldn’t have to do extensive research just to find out if a family planning clinic is as it seems.”

CPCs have used market research— such as a 1998 study conducted by the anti-abortion Family Research Council—to learn how to best portray their facilities as unbiased health providers. They often advertise in the phone book under keywords like “clinics,” “pregnancy services” or “abortion services,” and use facility names meant to imply a full range of services, like “The Women’s Resource Center.” Some CPC offices have also intentionally mimicked the signage of recognized family planning clinics. In Massachusetts, for example, a CPC named Problem Pregnancy established itself on the same floor as a Planned Parenthood clinic, under a sign that read “PP Inc.”

A 2006 study by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform also reported that 87 percent of the CPCs they investigated gave false and misleading information linking abortion to such health issues as breast cancer, infertility, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite medically discredited information and practices, CPCs have received considerable government support. Since 2001, they have been granted $60 million in government funds—some from congressional earmarks designated for pregnancy support and health services, but most from the Bush administration’s abstinence- only programs (as CPCs promote abstinence for unmarried people). As a result of this financial windfall, CPCs have flourished under the Bush administration and now outnumber abortion clinics in the U.S.

Maloney plans to push for congressional hearings on the bill. If the legislation passes, CPCs will still have the right to exist, but will be required to be honest about their function.