Democrats in Congress Introduce Bill to Crack Down on Fake Clinics and Anti-Abortion Disinformation

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Abortion rights supporters and anti-abortion demonstrators outside of a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic, on June 4, 2022, in New York City. Over 2,500 CPCs blanket the U.S.—triple the number of abortion clinics. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

On June 23, members of Congress introduced the Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation (SAD) Act to crack down on false advertising related to abortion services by “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs). CPCs are anti-abortion organizations that masquerade as abortion clinics in order to interfere with access to reproductive healthcare by disseminating inaccurate, misleading and stigmatizing information about abortion and contraception. Despite appearances, most CPCs do not employ licensed medical personnel or provide referrals for birth control or abortion care.

In the House, the lead sponsors of the SAD Act are Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), In the Senate, the bill is led by Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“No one should have to question that the person they are seeking medical advice from is actually a doctor or that information is accurate, objective and complete,” said Maloney. “It is truly disgusting that reproductive rights are being threatened and attacked by crisis pregnancy centers whose guiding principle is to mislead, misinform and outright lie to pregnant people in order to dissuade them from having an abortion. It is long past time that we prohibit these predatory tactics to undermine reproductive rights.”

The bill directs the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to prohibit deceptive or misleading advertising related to the provision of abortion services and authorizes the FTC to enforce these rules by penalizing organizations in violation with fines of up to $100,000 or half of the parent organizations’ yearly revenues. The SAD Act requires the FTC to make a biannual report to Congress on enforcement actions.

“This legislation cracks down on disinformation by simply requiring the FTC to ensure honesty for those that advertise reproductive healthcare,” said Maloney.

“With women’s reproductive rights under a coordinated attack by Republicans across the country, it is more important than ever that women continue to have access to trusted information and comprehensive reproductive health care services,” said Menendez. “By promoting deceptive or misleading advertisements about abortion services, crisis pregnancy centers jeopardize women’s health and well-being, all while elevating unproven theories about birth control and contraceptive care. Our bicameral legislation would help address this problem by allowing the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on these centers for their misleading tactics and hold them accountable for their actions.”

Over 2,500 CPCs blanket the U.S.—triple the number of abortion clinics, though some anti-abortion groups claim that the number is closer to 4,000. While CPCs have multiplied, health clinics providing abortion have diminished precipitously, from 2,749 in 1978 to under 780 today. CPCs outnumber abortion clinics nationwide by an average of three to one, but in some states the ratio is as high as 11 to one.

“At a time when reproductive rights are under attack, it is especially important for anyone seeking abortion care to be able to find a provider they can trust,” said Bonamici. “Crisis pregnancy centers often engage in deceptive advertising to get people in, then mislead them about the services they provide. The Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation Act would prohibit this egregious behavior so people looking for care get accurate information.”

Research reveals that CPCs aggressively promote inaccurate information, including that abortion is dangerous. Almost two-thirds made patently false or biased medical claims, including that abortion causes breast cancer and infertility—which is untrue according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Many tell women that abortion causes depression, a claim debunked by the American Psychological Association. Many inflated miscarriage rates to encourage women to delay care until it’s too late to use abortion pills or access abortion legally. Such delay tactics can be dangerous, especially for women with ectopic pregnancies and those who plan to continue their pregnancies and need prompt prenatal care. 

One-third of CPCs promoted “abortion pill reversal”—giving pregnant women progesterone to counteract the first abortion pill, which ACOG calls “unproven and unethical” and “dangerous to women’s health.” CPCs systematically promoted a made-up “syndrome” about “post-abortion regret” instead of the truth: It is women who are denied abortion who regret it, and suffer long-term mental and physical health consequences.

As states move to ban and criminalize abortion care, it is critical that people who need abortions are able to access evidence-based, non-judgmental health information from qualified professionals, not crisis pregnancy centers that use deceptive advertising and misinformation to spread their ideology.

Dr. Iffath Abbasi Hoskins, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

“Access to comprehensive medical care, including abortion, is essential for people’s health, safety, and wellbeing,” said ACOG president Dr. Iffath Abbasi Hoskins. “People must be able to receive the full spectrum of medical care without the fear of being manipulated by misleading, inaccurate or biased information. As states move to ban and criminalize abortion care, it is critical that people who need abortions are able to access evidence-based, non-judgmental health information from qualified professionals, not crisis pregnancy centers that use deceptive advertising and misinformation to spread their ideology.”

CPCs target low-income communities, especially women of color, says Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, CEO of Power to Decide. “CPCs are located in communities where it is already difficult to access abortion or other essential health care. People in these communities face additional barriers to care when they find themselves in a fake clinic that fails to provide them with medically accurate and complete information about their own pregnancies and health care options.”

“At a time when so many stand to lose access to abortion care,” she continued, “we must put a stop to the fraudulent practices of CPCs that deceive and delay time-sensitive, essential care.”

The SAD Act is supported by over 40 reproductive health, rights and justice organizations, medical and religious groups. Original cosponsors include 49 U.S. representatives and 16 U.S. senators. 

“With a far-right Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, it’s more important than ever to crack down on so-called ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ that mislead women about reproductive health care,” said Warren. “I’m working in the Senate to stop these deceptive practices and ensure every American can access the abortion care they need.”

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.