My Body, My Choice: Regulate Crisis Pregnancy Centers

February 25, 2021

No matter how unceremonious it may seem, peeing on a stick and seeing those two blue lines can be the happiest of moments for some. For others, those two blue lines can come as a shock: an unintentional life development that may spur stress, fear, and anxiety. Despite these alternating circumstances, accessing accurate and comprehensive health information at the start of the pregnancy is vital.

People seeking pregnancy resources may come across a crisis pregnancy center (CPC), or generally, a religiously-affiliated, non-profit organization that advertises free pregnancy resources, such as pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and counseling. However, there is one caveat: their primary mission is to discourage abortions. In fact, they refuse to provide abortion information or give referrals to abortion clinics.

CPCs should be mandated by federal law to provide accurate and fully comprehensive reproductive healthcare information, including abortion options. Doing so will allow people to make informed decisions and avoid adverse health outcomes from delayed abortion decisions. Not only do CPCs dangerously withhold important health information from pregnant people, but they also spread misinformation. From claims that abortions increase breast cancer risk to claims that they cause infertility, these lies aim to scare people rather than help them make fully informed decisions. Through their efforts to discourage abortions, CPCs inadvertently threaten the health and well-being of people who utilize their services.

When CPCs blindly dissuade abortions, their actions may contribute to unintended births. Negative health outcomes associated with this include mothers being less likely to seek prenatal care, increased chance of using tobacco or alcohol while pregnant, and increased risk of preterm delivery. The consequences span to the child as well: increased risk of low birth weight and negative mental health outcomes. CPCs exacerbate the very health outcomes we aim to prevent, exhibiting why regulating these centers is crucial.

Regulation will help ensure that crisis pregnancy centers stop delaying health information from people whose lives cannot afford a delay.

Furthermore, research shows that efforts to restrict abortions don’t stop them, they just make them less safe. By blindly discouraging abortions, CPCs may delay a pregnant person’s path towards abortion, but not necessarily prevent it. As a time-sensitive procedure, abortions pose a major health risk to the mother if delayed for too long: abortion-related mortality risk increases by almost 15 percent when not done until the start of the second trimester and by almost 30 percent when done between weeks 16 to 20. When you factor in data showing that people farther along in their pregnancies are more likely to utilize CPCs, the health risks from not requiring CPCs to provide comprehensive information are even more illuminated. Regulation will help ensure that CPCs stop delaying health information from people whose lives cannot afford a delay.

It’s important to consider the specific communities that CPCs target. More often than not, these centers advertise their free resources towards people who are of color, low income, or poorly educated. The impact of race, socioeconomic status, and educational attainment on health is well documented. The efforts of these centers may worsen already existing health disparities in these communities, especially among individuals for whom these identities intersect.

Advocates for CPCs root their promotion of life-affirming birth options in their right to free speech. We can look to California for an illustrative example of how this right protected CPCs from increased regulation. The 2015 Reproductive FACT Act required medically unlicensed CPCs to disclose this information to their patients and required that they inform patients of the full scope of reproductive health services available to them through state public programs, including abortion. However, in June of 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled the legislation unconstitutional, as the mandated disclosure violated the centers’ First Amendment right.

What could be perceived as a win for CPCs actually sets an important precedent for future legislation. It exemplifies that, yes, legislation can be passed to regulate CPCs, but mandating that CPCs disclose certain information will be difficult. A well-researched Columbia Law Review article suggests potential regulation options beyond mandated disclosure, such as issuing monetary fines for promoting false advertising or limiting state and federal funding to providers and organizations that offer comprehensive reproductive healthcare information. Pursuing some of these alternative regulation options may help lead to successful legislation that does not repeat the past mistakes of infringing upon free speech rights.

Without hesitation, federal legislation efforts need to focus on regulating CPCs. Their practices limit a person’s ability to make a safe and informed decision regarding their reproductive and abortion options. As autonomous individuals, receiving comprehensive health information in order to make decisions about our body should be a right, not a privilege. We should be able to seek out abortion options without being bombarded by scare tactics and blatant misinformation. Reproductive justice advocates, women’s rights activists, and anyone who believes in our right to choose should contact their representatives, calling for increased CPC regulation; healthcare organizations should issue public statements condemning the deceitful practices of CPCs. If decisions regarding our body are truly our choice, then we need laws that allow us to obtain all of the health information we need to make those choices. 

Taylor Crutison is an MPH student in the Department of Health Policy Management.