San Francisco officials are taking aim at so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which they say masquerade as women’s health clinics to promote an anti-abortion agenda.
Supervisor Malia Cohen introduced an ordinance Tuesday to prohibit the centers from making misleading statements about the services they provide, including implying that they refer women for abortions.
“As a city, we have a duty to protect the most vulnerable of our citizens,” Cohen said. She alleged that crisis pregnancy centers use deceptive advertising as they seek to limit access to abortion for low-income women and immigrants.
While supervisors consider Cohen’s ordinance, City Attorney Dennis Herrera said he would send a warning letter to the facility he called the most “egregious” offender, First Resort. The center, he said, places print and online ads saying it provides “abortion-counseling services,” when in fact it doesn’t.
“It is a pro-life organization that is pushing a political agenda,” Herrera said.
He said his office received complaints from citizens for two years about First Resort and other centers. While he declined to say how many complaints he had received, he called the figure “significant” and said the complaints came from “a variety of folks who said they weren’t getting what they thought.”
His letter accused First Resort of misleading consumers into thinking it provided abortions. He noted that First Resort had a paid Google search link that caused it to appear at the top of a search for “abortion in San Francisco.”
Herrera gave First Resort, which has offices in San Francisco, Oakland and Redwood City, a deadline of Aug. 31 to correct its advertising, including its website.
In a statement, CEO Shari Plunkett said First Resort, which has been in existence for nearly 20 years, “rejects in the strongest possible terms any representation that our advertising misleads women.”
Plunkett said the group respects a woman’s right to choose. However, bylaws the nonprofit organization filed with the state in 1997 declared that its mission was to “seek to direct women and their partners who view abortion as the only solution to an unwanted pregnancy toward choosing life for their unborn babies.”
While Plunkett declined to be interviewed, representatives of another group, Alpha Pregnancy Center, attended the news conference at which Cohen and Herrera announced their plans.
Chastidy Ronan, Alpha’s executive director, said she, her staff and supporters were there to make sure their group wasn’t breaking any laws.
Ronan said Alpha, which has an Excelsior district storefront, is a “family support center” that offers free diapers and baby supplies to women with unplanned pregnancies. Though Alpha advertises, she said she was confident the ads were not deceptive.
“Who wouldn’t want to hear about free diapers?” she said.
San Francisco would not be the first city with an ordinance targeting deceptive practices by crisis pregnancy centers. In some cases, these laws have not stood up to challenges by anti-abortion groups.
Last month, a federal judge struck down a New York City law that would have required centers to disclose that they do not provide abortions or have licensed medical staff. The judge ruled the law may infringe upon the First Amendment.
In January 2010, a Baltimore law requiring faith-based pregnancy centers to tell clients they do not refer them for abortion or birth control also was struck down for violating the First Amendment.
In 2010, Austin, Texas, enacted a law requiring pregnancy centers to declare that they do not provide abortions or birth control.
San Francisco officials said their ordinance would not infringe on free-speech rights because it would not require centers to say certain things, only prevent deceptive advertising.