The XX Factor

Free Speech and Crisis Pregnancy Centers

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A recent decision by a judge in New York City to block laws requiring crisis pregnancy centers to disclose what services they don’t provide to clients touches on what is one of the strangest battles in the war over women’s right to choose for themselves when to give birth.  Disclosure laws regulating crisis pregnancy centers are modeled after consumer protection laws, but what do you do when those committing the fraud aren’t trying to get money but just an opportunity to humiliate and shame someone for sexual choices they dislike?  Does free speech give you the right to lie in order to create a captive audience for religious lectures on abstinence and the importance of putting a rapist’s feelings ahead of your own?  What can the law do about someone who tells a pregnant woman she’s not pregnant, not to scam her out of money but in order to trick her into having a baby?  

It’s a tough call, because most consumer protections are based around the government’s right to regulate commerce, and lying to people in order to take control over their sexual and reproductive choices falls outside of the typical definition of “commerce.”  It’s hard to deny that federal judge William Pauley is wrong in ruling that free speech rights prevent the government from pre-emptively banning false advertising for a business that is not a business.  

Still, anti-choicers who are celebrating this as a victory should really take a moment to look at themselves. Even while Pauley technically ruled in favor of crisis pregnancy centers, he took the time to express disgust at their immoral tactics, and even went so far as to make suggestions to legislators on ways to regulate crisis pregnancy centers without causing constitutional concerns. The very fact that crisis pregnancy centers are fighting these laws tooth and nail demonstrates how much they depend on deceiving women who walk through their doors into thinking they’re going to get actual medical care.  My feeling is that once you feel you can’t get a job done with lies and manipulation, then you need to do an honest assessment of how far you’ve drifted from the path of basic decency.  

One tactic that I haven’t seen batted around much for fighting these crisis pregnancy centers is just to sue them for fraud.  There are women who thought they got medical care and didn’t because of crisis pregnancy centers, women whose abortions were more expensive and painful than they needed to be because crisis pregnancy centers lied to them about whether or not they were pregnant (or how far along they were), or women who made poor decisions based on lies that were presented to them as sound medical advice. It seems to me they could sue for damages.  If direct regulation doesn’t work, putting the fear of a lawsuit into them might help.