The Supreme Court Stood with Fake Clinics—But the Fight for Facts Goes On

The U.S. Supreme Court today pushed forward the goals of the anti-abortion movement in a 5-4 decision declaring California’s Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency (FACT) Act unconstitutional.

At the heart of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra case was a California law requiring crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) to inform pregnant patients that they are unlicensed medical organizations not recognized by the state. CPCs, also known as fake clinics, use deceptive and manipulative tactics to coerce vulnerable women into seeking services from them when they become pregnant. Once inside, patients become part and parcel of an anti-abortion scheme, often funded by an anti-abortion or religiously-affiliated organization, that purposefully denies them and discourages them from seeking access to comprehensive care.

“Fake women’s health centers rely on coercion to target women who are seeking professional medical care and people who have questions about abortion,” Michele Sleighel,  a Research Associate with the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project and a National Campus Organizer focusing on building movements in California, told Ms. “Now they can do so while intentionally withholding information about services actually available to pregnant people. That’s dangerous.” FMF’s Feminist Campus program mobilizes student groups nationwide for reproductive justice, including assisting them in launching campaigns to expose and shut down CPCs in their communities. Recently, students at Carleton College working with FMF organizers successfully kicked a CPC off of their campus.

CPCs misleadingly call themselves “women’s’ health clinics,” brazenly outfitting their employees in scrubs or lab coats as medical personnel even though some are staffed and managed by individuals who do not have any medical experience or background. CPCs often open their spaces in close proximity to real clinics that provide abortion, among other services, and place online ads or erect billboards asking “Pregnant? Need Help?” to convince women to contact them. A number of them go so far as to lie to women about their due date to make abortion more complicated to access or impossible altogether, and most rely on junk science to convince patients that abortion is dangerous.

These political organizations, funded by faith-based anti-abortion groups, counsel their patients—with no scientific or medical justification—that an abortion will be life-threatening, send them to hell or at the very least permanently impair their health. In a state that is overwhelmed by over 200 fake clinics, the FACT Act presented a moderate barrier—but the anti-abortion lobby refused to concede. After today’s decision, California can no longer warn patients about the real mission of CPCs—or provide them with information that could help them find comprehensive care.

“This decision is sadly consistent with the increasing and alarming trend of the U.S. government to undermine the right of a woman to make decisions about what’s best for her health and the health of her loved ones,” Ibis Reproductive Health said in a statement. “All people deserve accurate information and access to the full range of reproductive health services, including abortion.”

In 2016, NIFLA sued California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, arguing that in accordance with their religious beliefs, their attempts to deceive patients are protected by the constitution. Federal district courts rejected their claims, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit corroborated the lower courts’ rulings.

Today, the Supreme Court gave CPCs permission to manipulate, deceive and ultimately endanger women—and deny them the full access to reproductive health care that they deserve.

“One vote: That’s the difference between ending the lies and deception at fake women’s health centers or letting them off the hook for their dangerous and deceptive practices,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue reprimanded in a statement. “The deception at fake women’s health centers is real, but five Justices still refused to act on behalf of women who need accurate information to make the best decisions for our families and our lives. Today, the Supreme Court turned its back on women and condoned the deceptive tactics used by fake women’s health centers.”

Nevertheless, feminists will continue forming a front line in the fight against fake clinics. “We’re working to demand justice for pregnant people not only in California but also nationwide,” Sleighel said. “It’s ridiculous that we allow these so-called clinics to lie to women—and we won’t stop working against them until their lies are exposed.”


Eleanor Salsbury is a former editorial intern at Ms.