Sign Them Up
Baltimore tells crisis pregnancy centers just to be themselves.
The Baltimore City Council went where no local government has gone before, it seems, in telling crisis pregnancy centers in the city this week that they have to put up signs saying they don't provide abortion or birth control.
At first glance, this seems suspect. Since when do governments go around demanding that particular groups put up any sort of signs, much less signs that specify what they don't do? Why should the city council single out these centers for distrust, compelled speech, and a form of punishment? And why would any woman walking into such a center expect to hear about abortion and birth control, anyway?
The answer to all these questions begins with the way in which the centers present themselves. They can be all about bait-and-switch. They hang their shingle out near a Planned Parenthood affiliate with a vague-sounding "pregnancy clinic" label. Some promise "all-options" pregnancy counseling or even, over the phone, information about abortion. They offer pregnancy tests and, with increasing frequency, ultrasounds to women who test positive. And then they lobby hard and exclusively for the mother to keep the baby or go the route of adoption. They give out diapers and baby clothes but no condoms. And if they talk about abortion, it's usually to falsely malign the procedure, claiming that it increases the risk of breast cancer or suicide or infertility (no good research supports any of those propositions).
We know these crisis pregnancy centers are trading in false information because of two separate investigations. In 2006, the office of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., asked investigators to call 23 crisis pregnancy centers. (The two biggest networks are Care Net and Heartbeat International; there are solo operators out there as well, representing a total of between 2,500 and 4,000 in the United States.) The Waxman report found that 20 of the 23, or 87 percent, wrongly tied abortion to breast cancer or infertility or mental illness in the information provided. These amounted to rampant government-funded lies, since the Bush administration funneled $60 million to crisis pregnancy centers between 2001 and 2005.
The second investigation, from 2008, is by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland. Its investigators visited 11 centers in that state. By its account, 90 percent of the centers would discuss only abstinence or "natural family planning" as means of birth control. And every single one offered up some piece of false information. Some of the centers issued the usual litany of unsupported threats about suicide and breast cancer and infertility. And some got creative. One investigator said she was a Latina immigrant and was told it would be "very, very difficult" for her to get an abortion without legal resident status (false). At another center, a male counselor locked the door and acted "controlling and intimidating," the NARAL report states (nice). Think ACORN of the right, but without the video.
The NARAL report says that one center in Bowie, Md., states in its newsletter that 69 percent of the women who come in are under the age of 24. So you could argue that all the made-up misconceptions about abortion are also being poured into the ears of a population of women who are more vulnerable because they're younger and relatively inexperienced.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.