The Fake News Behind Fake Health Centers

Written by Madelyn McKeague, with NWHN interview by Negar Esfandiari

Imagine you are walking along a road, trying to find a pregnancy clinic. You are looking for the one you found online, the one that promised free services and counseling surrounded by soft colors and pictures of kind-looking women. You stop between Hartford GYN Center and Hartford Women’s Center, no more than 30 feet away from each other. You can’t remember which one you were looking for, so you choose one at random. Their signs, their buildings, even their names sound the same, so what could be the difference? Yet Hartford GYN Center is a licensed family planning clinic; Hartford Women’s Center is a fake health center.

Fake health centers, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, are unlicensed and unregulated facilities trying to prevent abortion through any means necessary. Like a feat of aggressive mimicry, they replicate the look of legitimate health centers—everything from their website to their branding to their interiors is indistinguishable from real clinics. They also heavily outnumber real health centers. In the United States, there are about four fake health centers for every real abortion clinic; in Missouri, there is only one abortion provider and twenty-four fake clinics.

After luring pregnant women through their doors, fake health centers employ a number of coercive tactics: equating abortion with genocide, showing purposefully gruesome abortion videos and images, falsely promising support after a child is born, and conducting ultrasounds to acquaint a pregnant person with the fetus—a practice the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine has condemned. And if those techniques don’t work, they will lie. They will lie and say that abortion is linked to breast cancer; they will lie and say that an abortion destroys the chance of having children in the future; they will lie about how far along a pregnancy is so as to push someone out of the window for a safe and legal abortion. These tactics are not only unethical and underhanded, but they actively harm the health of unknowing patrons through deliberate and purposeful acts of misinformation.

Fake health centers do not support women; their only goal is to prevent abortion through any means necessary. 

Despite their clear deception, fake health centers are very difficult to shut down. Their free-of-charge services not only lure low-income and vulnerable women, but they also protect them from consumer fraud and false advertising charges. Their lack of license doesn’t allow them to practice medicine, but it also doesn’t hold them to the same standard of care, such as providing medically accurate information and services. Instead of trying to find a way to close fake health centers, California took steps to inform everyone who walked through their doors what to expect.

The Reproductive FACT Act was passed by California Legislature in 2015, requiring unlicensed facilities to clearly post if they were “not licensed as a medical facility” and if they had “no licensed medical provider.” It also required legitimate facilities to inform their patients that “California has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services.” These postings don’t tell people to leave the centers, or to go somewhere else. They merely provide neutral and unbiased information. “Information is power,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, “and all women should have access to the information they need when making personal healthcare decisions.”

The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) believes these postings are an infringement upon their freedom of speech and sued Becerra. The 9th Court Circuit of Appeals disagreed and upheld the law. According to early legislative analysis cited in court documents, these centers employ “intentionally deceptive advertising and counseling practices [that] often confuse, misinform, and even intimidate women from making fully-informed, time-sensitive decisions about critical health care.” Yet NIFLA has continued to challenge the law up to the Supreme Court. Oral arguments are on Tuesday, March 20 and a decision is expected sometime in the summer.

We are hopeful that the court will continue to uphold the ruling, but remain cautious nevertheless. This is the first abortion-related case that the Supreme Court will address under the Trump administration, and the first one with Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch on the bench. A number of other places are beginning to implement similar laws and this ruling would affect how far we are willing to let anti-choice groups operate. “The decision could set the stage for how courts treat abortion rights for decades to come,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Unlike congressional legislation, there’s little the public can officially do to influence court case decisions, though it’s important for the Justices to hear our voices this week. But there’s plenty that can be done to influence fake health centers. Word of mouth is powerful, and alerting everyone about the existence and prominence of fake health centers is a simple and necessary measure. Our own Cindy Pearson, Executive Director of the NWHN, shared an anecdote of the NWHN’s history acting against fake health centers throughout our four-decade history. During the 1980s, in collaboration with real women’s health clinics, we created stickers reading “Foil Fakes, Warn Women” placed on phones with information regarding nearby fake clinics. The NWHN continues to be relentless in our activism, and will be present at the Supreme Court during oral arguments to protest fake health centers. “Time is of the essence,” Pearson said. The ways to resist are limitless.