By Allison Stevens
Washington Bureau Chief
Friday, March 31, 2006
Rep. Carolyn Maloney proposed a bill to prevent anti-abortion counseling centers from advertising that might deliberately confuse women seeking the services of a medical clinic.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)--When pregnant women in Robbinsdale, Minn., are looking for a local reproductive health services clinic, they might find the Robbinsdale Clinic, a medical facility established some four decades ago that offers services ranging from pregnancy testing to abortion procedures.
Or, they might stumble upon the local crisis pregnancy center, a religious organization with a very similar name--the Robbinsdale Women's Center--that set up shop across the street in 1992 with a mission to persuade women to carry their pregnancies to term.
Reproductive rights activists charge that pregnancy crisis centers such as the Robbinsdale Women's Center locate and name themselves as part of a strategy of intentional deception. They also say that many of these centers use false advertising, such as listing themselves in business telephone directories under categories such as "pregnancy," "medical," "women's centers" or "clinics."
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, introduced legislation Thursday that would direct the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit organizations from advertising in ways that suggest that they provide abortions when they do not.
Maloney came up with the idea for the bill, called Stop Deceptive Advertising in Women's Services Act, last summer after one of her aides told her of a difficult experience she had as an 18-year-old when she mistakenly entered a religious crisis pregnancy center in Gainesville, Fla., rather than the local Planned Parenthood affiliate.
"These fake clinics are set up to deceive women," Maloney said at an outdoor news conference in Washington, D.C., Thursday.
Maloney conceded that the bill is not likely to move quickly in a Congress controlled by religious conservatives but said it will raise public awareness of an issue that has often gone under the radar because women seeking abortions are often reluctant to discuss their experiences.
"Like most pieces of legislation, it will be a direct response to the amount of concern by the American public," she said.
The Robbinsdale Women's Center is one of approximately 2,000 to 3,000 faith-based crisis pregnancy centers, said Joan Malin, chief executive officer of the New York affiliate of Planned Parenthood, a reproductive health services organization. There are roughly 1,800 medically oriented family planning clinics, she said.
Although the Robbinsdale Clinic complains about the Robbinsdale Women's Center's decision to take up such close quarters with it, clinic officials do not charge the center with false advertising. They say the center is listed honestly enough under the "abortion alternatives" section in the Yellow Pages.
The Robbinsdale Women's Center--the crisis pregnancy center--is also across the street from the Pro-Life Action Ministries, a home to anti-abortion activists who urge pregnant women to go across the street rather than next door for medical care.
At least three or four patients a month are confused by the center's proximity and vague name, said Joyce Johnson, office manager of the Robbinsdale Clinic. That, she said, is a deliberate tactic by center officials who hope to prevent abortion.
"They intentionally positioned themselves where they are and they picked a name very close to ours," said Johnson. "Patients who go there are not told" that they may be in the wrong place.
Abortion rights advocates say Maloney's bill would help women who are seeking impartial medical counseling from winding up at a religious organization that could inflict or worsen their emotional and spiritual dilemmas.
Peggy Benicke, executive director of the Robbinsdale Women's Center, denied that center officials try to deceive pregnant women. She said the outdoor sign clearly indicates that the center does not provide abortion services and that all staff is trained to make that point clear to pregnant women seeking counseling. The center, she added, provides a number of services not available at the medical facility, such as financial assistance.
Benicke also objected to the charge that the center uses a vague name intended to be confused with an abortion provider. "Most people think we're a shelter," she said.
She also explained the strategy behind the center's location. "Our goal is to reach abortion-minded women," she said. "We want to reach them so we can offer them options and to let them know the huge amount of help that's out there for pregnant women."
Many other crisis pregnancy clinics are also located near abortion clinics, said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation in Washington, D.C., apparently for similar reasons.
Once inside the crisis pregnancy clinics, abortion rights advocates say, women are subject to proselytizing and anti-choice propaganda, including videos showing graphic abortion procedures--an experience that leaves some patients emotionally and spiritually troubled, said Anna Cook Saxon, the associate pastor at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Ill.
Patients who are unwillingly exposed to the information "go through the struggle again of whether they're making the right choice," Saxon said. "Then they begin to question the church. Maybe they feel they're not good enough to go back."
Abortion rights advocates also charge that some centers lead initial callers to believe they provide abortion services; employ untrained professionals to provide counseling services and review ultrasounds and medical tests; and lie about the outcome of pregnancy tests.
Jor-El Godsey, vice president of affiliate services at Heartbeat International, a Columbus, Ohio, group that assists crisis pregnancy centers, denies the deception charges.
He said he knew of no faith-based centers that advertise as providers of abortion services, and said most faith-based pregnancy centers sign on to his organization's call for truth in advertising.
As for pregnancy centers' decisions to locate themselves near clinics, Godsey said it was simple marketing in a country that prides itself on freedom of speech.
"All advertising is designed to lure somebody into something," he said. Crisis pregnancy centers, he said, operate on the same strategy that competing grocery stores do; they open up near a rival to draw their customers.
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.
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