In recent years, the anti-abortion movement has passed more than 400 state laws that shame, pressure, and punish women who have decided to have an abortion – despite the fact that three-quarters of voters support access to abortion. But the anti-abortion movement has also pursued a lower-profile, more insidious strategy of setting up shop in our neighborhoods, opening nearly 2,500 “fake clinics” that pose as women’s medical facilities, but instead of providing legitimate medical services, use lies, pressure, and deceit to prevent women from getting an abortion.
Women who are pregnant, or think they might be, need and deserve timely access to qualified medical professionals, accurate information, and trustworthy medical care. Luckily, cities and states are stepping up to make sure this happens.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard NIFLA v. Becerra, a case to decide whether California can regulate the deceptive practices of these fake clinics. And on the same day, the Connecticut House of Representatives held a hearing on HB 5416, which would prevent fake clinics that claim to offer pregnancy-related services from advertising with false, misleading, or deceptive language about the services they provide.
Fake clinics have common tactics that they perfect and share with one another through their national, well-resourced networks. They often open very close to an abortion clinic, to intercept and lure in women seeking abortions.
Last year, a fake clinic opened in the very same building complex as Hartford GYN Center, an abortion clinic that has served the Hartford area since 1978. The fake clinic opened under the name “Hartford Women’s Center,” and is run by the anti-choice organization that, for years, has spearheaded protests against Hartford GYN Center. Capitalizing on the confusion caused by its purposefully misleading name and co-location, the fake clinic places volunteers in the courtyard between the two facilities to draw women headed to appointments at the abortion clinic into the fake clinic instead.
On the inside, fake clinics often mirror medical facilities, with exam rooms, staff wearing scrubs, and sonogram equipment. Abby Johnson, a well-known anti-abortion advocate who runs trainings for fake clinic staffers, was caught on video saying, “We want to look professional… business-like. And, yeah, we do kind of want to look medical. The best client you ever get is one that thinks they’re walking into an abortion clinic.”
In New York, my organization documented the actions of fake clinics across the city back in 2009, learning that they were dispensing medical misinformation and harming pregnant women in the process. A common tactic, both in New York and around the country, is to lie to a woman about how far along she is in her pregnancy, pushing her to wait until an abortion is no longer possible. In addition to robbing a woman of her decision to end a pregnancy if she chooses, lying about gestational age can cause other serious health consequences, such as missing out on timely prenatal care and diagnostic testing.
Baltimore was the first city to regulate fake clinics’ deceptive practices, followed by Montgomery County, MD, Austin, New York City, San Francisco, Oakland, and most recently, Hartford. Hartford’s Pregnancy Information and Disclosure Protection Ordinance requires fake clinics to disclose whether or not there is a licensed medical provider on site providing or supervising the services offered there.
On the state level, California enacted the FACT Act in 2015 – currently being heard by the Supreme Court – requiring that fake clinics disclose that they do not offer abortion services and that the state offers affordable options for family planning. Hawaii passed a similar law last year. Connecticut’s proposed HB 5416 takes a different tack, resembling an ordinance passed in San Francisco and upheld in court, which would prevent fake clinics from misleading the public through false, misleading, or deceptive advertising about the services they provide.
As fake clinics proliferate across the country, city councils and state legislatures are increasingly taking the necessary, bold action to curb the dangers they pose, as part of a growing effort by these elected bodies to improve access to reproductive health care, including abortion.
Abortion issues are often cast as controversial, but we can all agree that women who are pregnant, or think they might be, need and deserve timely access to qualified medical professionals who can provide them with accurate information and trustworthy medical care. They don’t need lies, deception, and manipulation. On this front, our cities and states are taking the lead – and we should all be grateful they are.
Andrea Miller is President of the National Institute for Reproductive Health and NIRH Action Fund.