So many people showed up at the King County Board of Health meeting Thursday that they couldn’t fit inside the council chambers—not even close. They lined the walls and spilled into the hallway, pacing and murmuring, clutching their comment-card numbers, and waiting in a long, messy line to squeeze in. Among them: half a dozen nuns in royal-blue habits, at least two priests, a handful of women wearing pink Planned Parenthood and purple NARAL Pro-Choice Washington T-shirts, and dozens of people sporting green buttons with the words, “I Support Pregnancy Centers.” Inside the chambers, there were several balloons that read, “Love Them Both. Choose Life.”
This was the third public meeting the Board of Health held in the past few months on a new rule to require limited service pregnancy centers (LSPCs) to post a notice onsite—in large font and in ten languages—that reads, “This facility is not a health care facility.” It also mandates that the centers include the same language in their advertising. Centers that don’t comply can be subject to a fine of up to $100 a day.
There are approximately eight such facilities currently operating in King County and 60 across the state. Also known as “crisis pregnancy centers,” or, if you ask NARAL, “fake clinics,” they offer advice, counseling, pregnancy tests, and referrals to pregnant women free of charge, but do not offer other medical care (except sometimes ultrasounds). They are usually run by pro-life, faith-based groups that discourage abortion and contraception, and, according to the County, are unregulated, “often staffed by volunteers and employees who lack medical training or licensure.”
Supporters of these facilities claim they were given almost no warning and no chance to weigh in on a rule that affects them. “Our first formal notification was on July 14th, which is a Friday, and the following Monday, all written testimony had to be in,” says Kim Triller, executive director of Care Net of Puget Sound, the local branch of a Christian nonprofit organization that supports these pregnancy centers.
The rule passed Thursday nearly unanimously. The bulk of the board members’ discussion involved quibbling over the required font size.
“I believe fundamentally that women who are pregnant deserve complete, accurate, and timely information about their health care and their options,” said King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, the board’s chair. “I don’t think there’s any place for misleading folks when they’re in that situation.” Posting a sign like this “has really nothing to do with what goes on within the LSPCs and their ability to do what they do,” he added. “It has everything to do with having folks walking in the door knowing what they’re walking into.”
Seattle City Councilmember M. Lorena González, also a member of the county board of health, called the rule “common sense transparency,” saying, “We heard a lot during public testimony about choice, and how this regulation inhibits choice somehow. I actually think the opposite is true.”
Only King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert dissented. “For me … the crux of the difference [is] whether or not you offer abortions,” Lambert says. “Maybe the notice signs should say, ‘Notice, beware, abortions are not recommended here,’ because that’s really what we’re getting at.” In an interview after the meeting, Lambert added, “I believe everybody should have a choice. What this proves is, ‘You can have a choice, as long as it’s the choice I want you to have.’”
NARAL, Legal Voice, and other opponents of the pregnancy centers say that they’re run by anti-choice advocates who attempt to deceive vulnerable women—often low-income women without health insurance—into believing they’re receiving medical advice or care, when instead they’re being fed false information. Volunteers and legal interns from NARAL and Legal Voice report that when they visited these clinics, they were told that abortion can cause infertility, sterility, breast cancer, and pelvic inflammatory disease; that condoms are ineffective at preventing sexually transmitted diseases and abstinence is a better option; that hormonal contraceptive use could lead to difficulty getting pregnant later; and that there’s such a thing as “post-abortion syndrome.”
Offering misinformation like this, these groups say, is an insidious way to delay a woman’s decision-making process until abortion is no longer an option.
“Telling people that they have plenty of time to make this decision is such a falsehood and so dangerous,” says Sara Ainsworth, advocacy director at Legal Voice, a self-described progressive feminist organization that has been documenting the work of LSPCs for a number of years now. Ainsworth says Legal Voice started getting calls from women who’d gone to these centers and had negative experiences back in 2005. “We just started collecting stories from people, analyzing whether they had legal claims … realizing what [LSPCs] actually do,” she says. And Legal Voice was not the only group looking into it at the time. In 2006, former U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman commissioned a national report to investigate centers like these that were receiving federal funds. That report, Ainsworth says, found “the same kind of deception and misleading information that we’re still seeing. … This has been going on for quite some time.”
Therefore, Thursday’s rule is an important one, she says. “From our perspective, people are put at risk if they don’t know what kind of service they’re going to get when they go into a place, particularly if that place looks like, appears like, a health care facility.”
Adds Tiffany Hankins, executive director of NARAL, “We’re thrilled that they’ve taken this really important first step.” When NARAL volunteers recently visited some of these facilities, Hankins reports, the reception was “shaming and judgmental to say the least—definitely a bent towards discouraging any sex outside of marriage, and preaching morals, more than how to access health care.”
Those who support such facilities, on the other hand, vehemently disagree. Public testimony was filled with the insistence that these centers are indeed health care facilities; women who said they’d received excellent care and wouldn’t have been able to afford any prenatal care without them; and the claim that this whole thing was blatantly orchestrated by pro-choice groups. “What they passed today is not in the best interest of women’s health,” says Bonnie McEachern, a King County resident. “It’s more pushing a political agenda. And that’s what I’m against.”
“I am grieving,” says Triller. “This legislation will cast doubt in the public, cast doubt in those that support the centers, and hamper the small little resources we have to advertise. … We don’t take any government funding,” she says, just private donations. “And every service is offered for free. I think it’s sad. I think women lost today.”
Ainsworth and Hankins dispute the claim that Legal Voice and NARAL were behind the new rule. Dembowski approached them for information, they insist, not the other way around. “We did not propose the ordinance and we did not write it,” Ainsworth says. During his closing remarks, Dembowski told the room that he’d been working on it for about a year and a half.
“Undoubtedly, on both sides there’s sincere belief, and on both sides there is advocacy,” Ainsworth says. “Care Net may be advocating for the broader principle that they should remain unregulated to advocate against abortion. Our side of the issue is concerned that when people are misled about the nature of the services that they’re getting, their reproductive health is undermined.”
Lambert argues that someone seeking an abortion will get one, whether or not they go to an LSPC. She says the rule was railroaded through and relies too heavily on one-sided information from Legal Voice and NARAL. “I personally believe that both sides of every issue should be made available. When one group gets strong enough on any topic to shut out the other view, we are in a very unhealthy situation.”
Ainsworth and Hankins, meanwhile, are focused on Thursday’s news as a promising first step. Ainsworth says she worries about the medical inaccuracies that may be offered at these facilities, for instance. “There are other things that are very troubling and problematic and should be regulated,” she says. “This particular ordinance does not address that.”