Advertising practices of crisis pregnancy centers raise concerns

The sign outside the building advertised free pregnancy tests.

Inside the southeast Arlington office, there were toys, dolls and parenting magazines scattered around. Sarah, 21, thought that she had found a safe and nonjudgmental place to weigh her options as she faced an unplanned pregnancy.

Instead, she was shown a 20-minute video of "fetuses, complications and horrible things."

Then a counselor told her that 50 percent of women who have an abortion get breast cancer and 30 percent die within a year of the procedure, said Sarah, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her privacy.

She left with one final thought from her counselor.

"God wouldn't forgive me if I murdered my baby," Sarah said the woman told her.

Sarah's experience is not unlike others that have occurred at crisis pregnancy centers around the country, which are largely funded by religious organizations, said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation.

"A lot of times, these centers advertise free pregnancy tests to lure women in," she said. "Instead, they have women come in and spend hours watching videos and listening to religious sermons."

The incidents have sparked a new round of measures, proposed at the local and national levels, to require more disclosure.

In April, Austin became the second city in the country to adopt an ordinance requiring crisis pregnancy centers to post signs stating that they do not offer abortions or provide contraceptives.

The ordinance, which passed unanimously, is not so much about abortions or birth control as it is about deceptive practices, said Heidi Gerbracht, policy director for Austin City Council member Bill Spelman.

"The main message is truth in advertising," she said. "It's hard to understand how reasonable people would oppose this. After all, it's just a sign."

Last year, Baltimore passed a similar ordinance requiring signs stating that the centers don't provide abortions or birth control. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has challenged the law on the grounds that it violates First Amendment rights.

In February, the Montgomery County Council in Maryland passed a regulation requiring centers that do not have at least one licensed medical professional on staff to post a sign disclosing the scope of their practice.

Truth in advertising

Organizations such as Heartbeat International, a network of ministries with more than 1,000 crisis pregnancy centers, question the need for signs.

Heartbeat supports honesty and truthful advertising as long as it applies to everyone, said Joe Young, vice president of operations for the ministry, which has centers in North Texas. But when crisis pregnancy centers are required to post signs and abortion clinics are not, it creates an uneven playing field, Young said.

As for accusations that the centers are deceptive, Young said they're truthful about the services they provide. When they advertise that they provide family planning, they do. It's just in a natural way, not involving pills or contraceptives, he said.

"Crisis pregnancy centers are not fake clinics," he said. "They're real clinics; they just do different services."

The Arlington Crisis Pregnancy Center declined to comment on the experience Sarah reported.

But others say some accusations against similar centers are unjustified and orchestrated by abortion-rights groups.

A recent exit survey of crisis pregnancy center clients underscores the positive effect they have, said Kristin Hansen, a spokeswoman for Care Net, a network of crisis pregnancy centers that held its national conference in Grapevine over the weekend. The survey found that 97 percent of clients gave the centers a high approval rating, she said.

Crisis pregnancy centers are there to provide a service and "treat women with the dignity they deserve," Hansen said.

But at some centers, workers have reportedly written "Hi Mommy" on ultrasounds, shown gory photographs of abortions and pressured women to avoid the procedure. The centers, which are often staffed by volunteers from religious ministries, help women find alternatives to abortion.

That's not what some women got in Austin.

When considering its ordinance requiring signage, the City Council heard testimony from women who went in for one thing and got something else entirely, Gerbracht said.

Hansen said abortion-rights groups send undercover clients to promote their own message.

"The women we serve and help are pleased and would like to see our centers remain open and not restricted by efforts such as what went on in Austin," she said.

The Austin ordinance was never designed to stop crisis pregnancy centers from providing a service, Gerbracht said.

"It's great that these places provide the services they provide," she said. "We just want them be truthful about the services."

Privacy rights

Sarah said that her experience at the Arlington center was stressful, but that it got even worse after she left.

When Sarah didn't return for a sonogram, the counselor tried to contact her at home. But instead of talking to Sarah, the counselor talked to her boyfriend's mother, who was visiting.

"She was told I was pregnant and considering an abortion and that she needed to stop me in order to save me," Sarah said.

The counselor disregarded patient confidentiality, Saporta said.

"If that was a legitimate clinic, that would be HIPAA violation," she said, referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. But crisis pregnancy clinics are generally unregulated and not subject to federal laws surrounding privacy.

The city of Arlington does not regulate the centers in any way, city officials said. And there are no plans for the City Council to address the issue.

At the national level, the fight over legislation continues.

In July, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., reintroduced a bill that would require the Federal Trade Commission to establish advertising rules that restrict crisis pregnancy centers from creating the impression that they provide abortion services if they don't.

A similar bill introduced during the Bush administration in 2006 failed.

"The timing was off," Saporta said. "The hope is the atmosphere has changed with a new administration."

Care Net does not normally have a lobbying presence at the state or local levels, but as city ordinances pop up, the privately funded organization has been forced to explain who they are and what they do, Hansen said.

In several states, anti-abortion groups have seen victories. In Oklahoma, a bill was passed this year requiring an ultrasound an hour before an abortion.

There's a reason cities such as Austin have adopted ordinances, Young said: Abortion-rights groups push for them in communities where they have traction.

"We haven't seen an ordinance in Dallas or any of the more conservative Texas communities," Young said.

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664