A Promising New Law That Pushes Back Against Deceptive Anti-Abortion Centers
In October, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance that banned misleading advertisements for the city’s crisis pregnancy centers. The ordinance allows courts to fine crisis pregnancy centers, which counsel pregnant women against abortion, up to $500 every time they falsely imply in advertisements that they offer abortion services. First Resort, Inc., one of the centers singled out by the law, responded with a suit accusing the city of a First Amendment violation in less than a month. The case is now going to the United States District Court for Northern California. First Amendment challenges have already felled, blocked, or weakened similar legislation in federal courts all over the country—in Baltimore, New York City, and Montgomery County, Maryland. An Austin law is currently under review. Is this law likely to suffer the fate of its precursors? Despite similarities, advocates and experts insist that it stands a better chance of being upheld—and, possibly, changing the playing field when it comes reining in the deceptive advertising of crisis pregnancy centers.
Crisis pregnancy centers seek to dissuade women and girls from seeking abortions by walking them through alternative options, such as adoption. Not all of them are up front about their motives, and their indirection can delay a woman’s decision-making until emergency contraceptives are no longer effective or until an abortion is illegal. There are obviously a range of approaches that these centers use; in the worst cases, a 2006 Congressional investigation found that centers led women to believe the falsehoods that abortion is linked to breast cancer, high rate of future infertility, and psychological effects akin to PTSD.
The activities of First Resort appeared to San Francisco city officials to occupy the more duplicitous end of this spectrum. San Francisco’s city attorney says the non-profit center has paid to be the first Google result when a person searches for “abortion San Francisco.” Although First Resort’s website includes “pre and post abortion counseling” among its services, lists abortion as an option for unwanted pregnancy, and features a testimonial from a client who chose to have an abortion, First Resort CEO Shari Plunkett says the primary reason for its existence is to prevent abortions. And, crucially, nowhere on its website does First Resort disclose that it does not offer abortions or referrals to abortion providers. Omissions like these are at the core of the claim that the center misleads through false advertising.
The San Francisco ordinance addresses these matters using a different tactic than past legislation. Other laws—such as the New York version—have attempted to compel speech, requiring crisis centers to post signs informing women that they do not provide abortion services or that the government recommends fully-licensed medical facilities. Steven Shiffrin, a law professor at Cornell University and a First Amendment expert, explains that while laws compelling speech have proven vulnerable, there is ample judicial precedent behind laws that target advertising. “There’s no constitutional right to deceive,” he says.