Photo depicting Sen. Manka Dhingra wearing a white blazer speaking at a podium with Gov. Jay Inslee in a blue suit standing in the background.

City Council, Legislative Dems Are Trying to Regulate Right-Wing Crisis Pregnancy Centers. Will It Work This Time?

by Megan Burbank

In September, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to impose new regulations on crisis pregnancy centers, nonprofit organizations that resemble abortion clinics — and often set up adjacent to licensed health care providers — with the goal of dissuading pregnant people from choosing to have abortions, often through deceptive practices and misinformation about abortion.

“Crisis pregnancy centers are pernicious organizations masquerading as healthcare to persuade pregnant people to not access medically accurate, unbiased healthcare — exactly when they need it most,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold of the new policy in a statement. “Since Seattle will remain a safe place for people seeking abortions, crisis pregnancy centers are likely to proliferate here, making today’s vote to regulate their false and harmful claims so vital.”

The legislature is also making renewed efforts to crack down on the anti-abortion centers. Among a slate of reproductive health policy proposals set to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session, State Rep. Vandana Slatter (a Democrat from Bellevue) and State Sen. Manka Dhingra (a Democrat from Redmond), in partnership with Attorney General Bob Ferguson, are advocating for a bill that would enhance data privacy protections in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

A news release from the attorney general’s office lists crisis pregnancy centers among threats to privacy that the legislation seeks to address, noting that when a pregnant person visits a crisis pregnancy center, “the crisis pregnancy center can collect and share the [person’s] sensitive data with anti-abortion groups who can then target the woman with pro-life messaging and political ads.”

Policies like these reflect a newfound emphasis among lawmakers on preserving reproductive rights in Washington State in the wake of the Dobbs decision. But will it work?

Though crisis pregnancy centers’ deceptive practices are well-documented, efforts to regulate them or encourage greater transparency in their advertising haven’t succeeded, even in states like Washington that have well-established legal protections for reproductive health care.

The Limited Service Pregnancy Center Accountability Act, a State Senate bill introduced in 2011, would have required that crisis pregnancy centers disclose that they do not provide abortion services or protect client privacy. The bill received a public hearing that year but did not advance out of the Senate’s Health & Long Term Care Committee. At the hearing, public testimony was delayed due to “inflammatory pro-life rhetoric” from Senate Republicans who spoke in opposition to the bill, according to contemporaneous reporting from The Stranger. (Full disclosure: I was an intern at The Stranger in 2011 and attended that hearing.)

Sara Ainsworth, senior legal and policy director at the reproductive justice law group If/When/How, remembers that hearing. Then working for the women’s and LGBTQ advocacy group Legal Voice, Ainsworth testified in support of the bill. Legal Voice and Planned Parenthood had recently released a report on crisis pregnancy centers throughout Washington State. Through phone calls and visits, they’d found misinformation and a lack of transparency around what type of care the centers actually offered.

“Many of them misled people into believing that they were actually going to get not just unbiased counseling, but either an abortion or potentially a referral for an abortion,” said Ainsworth. “And they’ve only heightened their activities since that time.”

They’re also uniquely challenging to regulate, she says. “They are religiously affiliated, and they use that religious affiliation to essentially operate in ways that are either outside the law and hard to regulate or are actually protected by religious freedom,” she said.

Consumer protection laws require truth in advertising, but crisis pregnancy centers have an advantage in that they generally don’t profit financially from their services. “There’s some case law that indicates that an organization that doesn’t charge for its services has a defense to the kinds of activities that it does that might otherwise violate that law,” said Ainsworth. Filing lawsuits against the centers could also raise privacy concerns for people who have experienced the centers’ deceptive practices firsthand. “It’s really, really hard for people who have been harmed by a crisis pregnancy center to imagine themselves being the person that stands up publicly to the crisis pregnancy center,” said Ainsworth. “The backlash is severe.”

Legal challenges can also stymie efforts to hold the centers accountable. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a network of Christian-affiliated crisis pregnancy centers, striking down a California law requiring that centers providing services like ultrasounds without a medical license disclose that they are not medical clinics.

And even when they succeed in establishing regulations for crisis pregnancy centers, local governments may struggle to implement them. In 2017, the King County Board of Health passed an ordinance requiring crisis pregnancy centers to disclose to consumers that they are not health care facilities. But the policy doesn’t have the funding to be enforceable, Ainsworth says.

Still, she says, it’s possible new efforts could succeed. While the legislation is familiar, the political landscape is different. The legislature is less divided now than it was in 2011, and reproductive rights have dominated headlines since Roe v. Wade was overturned. “The politics have changed, in the sense that there’s a lot more awareness to the need to protect abortion rights and to protect abortion access than we’d seen in the years preceding Dobbs, from people that aren’t normally in the fight,” she said.

Megan Burbank is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Before going full-time freelance, she worked as an editor and reporter at the Portland Mercury and The Seattle Times. She specializes in enterprise reporting on reproductive health policy, and stories at the nexus of gender, politics, and culture.

📸 Featured Image: Sen. Manka Dhingra speaks at a press conference following the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Photo is attributed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s Flickr (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-ND 2.0 license).

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