NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is conducting the first major investigation of anti-abortion pregnancy centers since the mid-1990s, issuing 34 subpoenas over the last month to centers suspected of deceiving women about their services or practicing medicine without a license.
Spitzer is probing complaints from New Yorkers that the groups, commonly referred to as "crisis-pregnancy centers," lure women with the promise of reproductive health services, only to present them with anti-abortion materials, said Darren Dopp, Spitzer's spokesman.
Crisis-pregnancy centers are evangelical outposts that frequently locate near abortion clinics. They often attract women with offers of free pregnancy tests. They are also popular vehicles for fund-raising by anti-abortion groups. The subpoenas are an attempt to determine whether the centers are violating New York's health laws and consumer practices.
"We've had complaints about the crisis-pregnancy centers for years," said JoAnn Smith, president and chief executive officer of Family Planning Advocates of New York State, an umbrella group that includes 78 family-planning clinics, including 15 operated by Planned Parenthood. "Women are drawn into them thinking that they are going to get all-options counseling and they barrage them with only anti-abortion choices." A new trend at the centers, she said, is to offer sonograms--a development that concerns Smith because the centers may lack the medical personnel and licenses necessary to provide the service correctly.
"We are not trying to close down the facilities, but we take seriously a woman's right to reproductive services," Dopp said. In a letter dated Jan. 30, Spitzer informs those subpoenaed that they are expected to abide by earlier consent decrees: They must disclose in their advertisements and contacts with consumers what services they do and don't offer--including that they don't provide abortions or make referrals for abortion. Spitzer also told the centers that they must not practice medicine without a license, which means they can't administer pregnancy tests or issue prescriptions.
Anti-abortion activists, the first to release information about the subpoenas, immediately criticized Spitzer.
Chris Slattery, director of Expectant Mother Care in Manhattan and three other crisis-pregnancy centers in New York City, said he was "not surprised" by the investigation because, he said, Spitzer made "clear pledges" to NARAL, a leading pro-choice advocacy organization. Slattery, who received one of the subpoenas issued by the division of reproductive rights and the Consumer Fraud Bureau, said, "We are going to vigorously defend ourselves."
As Complaints Persist, Centers Proliferate
Peg Johnston, an abortion provider who is the director of the Southern Tier Women's Services in Vestal, N.Y., says the pregnancy centers are a problem. She recently saw a patient who had visited the nearby crisis pregnancy center, All Women's Help Center, and the patient reported to Johnston that she was told there that if she had an abortion she would not be able to conceive again. "It's unhelpful and upsetting," Johnston said.
Agreements with crisis-pregnancy centers in New York to stop deceptive advertising and practices were negotiated by two other attorneys general: Democrat Robert Abrams in 1987 and Republican Dennis Vacco in 1995. Other states have also taken actions against crisis-pregnancy centers, including California, Ohio, South Dakota and Texas, all prior to 1995. California prevented such centers from collecting urine specimens, advertising in the "clinic" section of phone books and performing tests for pregnancy.
The past seven years have been a period of intense growth for crisis-pregnancy centers, which now number more than 3,000 nationally, according to an online database maintained by Heartbeat International, a Christian-oriented pro-life organization. In New York State alone, Spitzer has identified 90 crisis-pregnancy centers, but there may be more; the Heartbeat database lists 160.
A soon-to-be-released report of state legislative activity in 2001 by NARAL in Washington points to increasing efforts by crisis-pregnancy centers to corner public funding through specialty license plates issued by states, state funding for "abortion alternatives," or designation of special tax funds. The centers, wrote NARAL, "do not provide counseling on the full range of reproductive options, including abortion, and use anti-abortion propaganda, misinformation, and intimidation." (On Friday, a federal district court in Florida will hear oral arguments on a lawsuit challenging a Florida specialty-license-plate law that gives money to crisis-pregnancy centers but prohibits distribution to groups that counsel or refer for abortion.)
Carla Goldstein, vice president of Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood of New York, said employees of the centers have told women that their pregnancy-test results are negative when in fact they are positive in an apparent effort to prolong pregnancy. In the Bronx, women routed to a nearby crisis-pregnancy center because of confusing signage complain about false and incomplete information, she said.
New York NARAL, the abortion-rights advocacy organization, has received complaints about anti-choice "sidewalk counselors" trying to sweep women entering an abortion clinic to a nearby crisis-pregnancy center.
"I would be just as angry if women were coerced into having abortions," said Kelli Conlin, executive director of New York NARAL.
Centers Defend Their Operations
The issuance of the subpoenas has prompted a furious response from anti-abortion groups.
Slattery, one of the leaders of the now-defunct Operation Rescue in New York, an aggressive anti-abortion protest group, believes the crisis-pregnancy centers are being harassed. "There are no laws that require girls or women who are pregnant to be counseled by someone who is licensed," he said.
"This is a free country. Those in the pro-life movement are not going to come to agreement with the pro-abortion movement about what is accurate information," said Slattery, who also headed "Project Stop RU-486" to prevent the legalization of mifepristone, the so-called "abortion pill."
Slattery's Expectant Mother Care goes by several other names, including New York Metro Women's Health, Manhattan Pregnancy Center or Pregnancy Resource Center, according to a search of online directories, which sometimes characterize them as "clinics," "medical clinics" or "family-planning information centers." In the telephone company's yellow pages, the center is listed in a special category of "abortion alternatives," as is required by prior legal actions.
The telephone lines and bleak building that house Expectant Mother Care are shared with the Legal Center for the Defense of Life, which represents anti-abortion protestors in court, an organization with which Slattery is also associated.
Attorney Lawrence A. Washburn Jr., known for his representation of anti-abortion activists and causes, is also listed at the same address and phone number. Washburn was the attorney for Mother and Unborn Baby Care of Long Island, Inc., known as A-A-A Pregnancy Options, which signed the consent agreement former Attorney General Vacco in July 1995, agreeing to stop collecting urine specimens for pregnancy testing, not to engage in medical diagnoses, not to advertise as a clinic or medical service, and, if asked, to advise callers that it does not provide abortions.
At Slattery's Manhattan site, brochures encourage women to consider suing abortion providers and assert that abortion causes breast cancer.
Slattery is a staunch opponent of the state's reproductive-rights division in the office of the attorney general. "They've very aggressively litigated pro-life sidewalk counselors and protestors," he said. "It's outrageous that taxpayer dollars would be spent in a unit to defend abortion. Granted, it's legal; it's repugnant."
To aid him in opposing the subpoenas, Slattery secured representation from the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal advocacy organization founded in 1990 by Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition. Vincent McCarthy, senior northeast counsel, said he will oppose those portions of the subpoenas that seek information about donors or volunteers. "People are not expecting when they volunteer that their names will be disclosed," McCarthy said. The subpoenas demand that the centers hand over records or documents explaining, among other things, how counselors are trained, their credentials, and policies and procedures for counseling and referral.
Investigation Attracts Attention Far From Its Source
The investigation has even sparked a feud between Spitzer and the adamantly anti-abortion attorney general of South Carolina, Charlie Condon.
"I would strongly urge you to reconsider what I believe is an ill-advised course of action," Condon wrote in a letter dated Jan. 11. Condon, running for governor, added that the "heavy hand of a government investigation" would "discourage community service and volunteerism."
In letters released by Condon's office, Spitzer wrote back to his South Carolina counterpart, expressing his concern about "a potential health threat" and allegedly deceptive practices of the crisis-pregnancy centers, adding that "I consider it highly inappropriate for one prosecutor to publicly comment on an ongoing investigation by another prosecutor."
Elsewhere, the Center for Reclaiming America, an anti-abortion group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., published an article on its Web site that calls the subpoenas declaration of "war" and part of a "massive pro-abortion campaign." WorldNetDaily, a conservative news service, wrote that Spitzer's move could "ultimately lead to the shutdown of the crisis-pregnancy movement."
Bishop Henry J. Mansell of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo denounced Spitzer at a homily at a Mass on Jan. 22, according to the Buffalo News. Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition of Washington, accused Spitzer at a news conference of using "Nazi-like tactics."
But Smith of Family Planning Advocates said that "the uproar about Spitzer is carefully calculated to make it look like he did something unfair, and I don't think that is the case. We have been alarmed by the actions of crisis-pregnancy centers," she said.
Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York who writes about reproductive rights.
For more information:
Family Planning Advocates of New York:
New York NARAL
"Deceptive Anti-Abortion Crisis Pregnancy Centers":
Center for Reclaiming America
"Director of Traditional Values Coalition Speaks for Crisis Pregnancy Centers":http://www.reclaimamerica.org/pages/whatwe/whatspage.asp?story=52
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--A new report has found that thousands of New York State women enrolled in state-sponsored health insurance plans are denied access to a wide array of reproductive healthcare services, including contraception and abortion.
The report, issued Monday by New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, a Democrat and a candidate for governor, found that the state routinely contracts with health maintenance organizations operated by the Catholic Church to provide health insurance under two state operated plans. These HMO's routinely deny access to reproductive health services that violate Catholic Church policy.
For example, one company, Fidelis, which providers insurance to 75,000 people in 21 New York counties as well as in New York City, only permits providers to promote natural family planning methods. Fidelis does not provide contraception, sterilization or abortion.
Women who have received their health care through an HMO that denies such reproductive health services are allowed to go outside their plan to obtain these services. But McCall charges that women are frequently not told at the time they sign up for the plans that these services are not covered and that they can go elsewhere to obtain care. McCall points out that women who go elsewhere for care are forced to navigate through two different healthcare providers and also may face delays in accessing services.
In addition, women who do not make a specific choice of an HMO are randomly assigned to a plan. Under this system, many women are assigned to plans that deny reproductive health services.
McCall recommended that the state end the practice of assigning women of child bearing age to HMO's that limit reproductive services and evaluate the impact of contracting with companies that do not cover crucial reproductive health services.