Women’s Rights and Religious Liberty: What California and Illinois’s Laws against Crisis Pregnancy Centers Can Teach Humanists

Last week, two crisis pregnancy centers and a pro-life physician, represented by the conservative legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), sued the state of Illinois after Governor Bruce Rauner (R) signed off on new requirements for health care facilities.

Passed this year, Senate Bill 1564 amends the state’s Health Care Rights of Conscience Act (HRC) to require physicians and healthcare facilities, including crisis pregnancy centers, to inform patients when they are “unable to provide a health care service contrary to [their] conscience” and refer patients to providers that “they reasonably believe may offer the health care service.”

Illinoisis following California’s lead in regulating crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown (D) signed into law the Reproductive FACT Act requiring CPCs to disclose that they are “not licensed as a medical facility by the State of California” and inform patients that California “has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services,” including abortion and contraception. In response, the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a complaint against the state of California.

In the ADF’s latest complaint against Illinois, attorneys argue that Illinois’s new requirements discriminate against religious crisis pregnancy centers and violate the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the religious freedom, free speech, and due process provisions in the Illinois State Constitution. “The HRC Act as now amended discriminates against individuals like plaintiffs whose religious convictions require them to not participate in abortion, and not to refer for or provide information to facilitate abortion,” states the complaint.

Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) are religious organizations that attempt to dissuade pregnant women in crisis against having an abortion. They often use deceptive tactics to target rural, low-income women who may not be able to tell the difference between abortion clinics and crisis pregnancy centers. They frequently incorporate under misleading names like “Women’s Health Center,” rent property near abortion clinics, and buy ad space online for keywords like “abortion services” and “abortion clinics.” They also advertise “free family planning services” such as pregnancy testing and ultrasounds.

Once a pregnant woman has sought services at a CPC, the staff members try to deter her from having an abortion. They show graphic videos of rare, late-term abortion procedures that are typically only performed in instances when a woman’s life is in danger if she continues the pregnancy. They intimidate women by erroneously warning them of supposed health risks associated with abortion, like the so-called “post-abortion syndrome,” which is not recognized by the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association. CPC staff also cite debunked medical studies linking abortion, infertility, and breast cancer as fact.

According to a fact sheet from NARAL Pro-Choice America, there are crisis pregnancy centers located in all fifty states and overseas. At least twelve states allocate funds directly to CPCs in their state budgets, including Louisiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. Others indirectly fund CPCs through offering “Choose Life” license plates, from which a portion of the proceeds are donated to CPCs. Some states, like South Dakota, have even attempted to require women seeking an abortion to first undergo counseling at a CPC.

Last month in California, the Los Angeles City Attorney cited three area crisis pregnancy centers for failing to comply with the state’s Reproductive FACT Act, which marked the first time this law has been enforced. Pregnancy Counseling Center in Mission Hills, Los Angeles Pregnancy Center in MacArthur Park, and Harbor Pregnancy Help Center in Wilmington were given thirty days to comply with the law or face a fine of $500 for the initial violation and $1,000 for each subsequent violation.

ADF attorneys representing crisis pregnancy centers argue that CPCs shouldn’t have to disclose that they don’t perform abortions or prescribe contraception and that they shouldn’t have to refer patients to healthcare facilities that offer a full range of reproductive health services. Patients “can walk to dozens of restaurants, banks, beauty salons, food markets, retail stores, auto repair centers, gas stations, pharmacies, or other kinds of stores” to “ask to see a phone book and find therein a list of doctors that may provide abortions or contraception,” states their latest complaint.

These centers would have pregnant women leave and go somewhere else to ask for a phonebook to look up doctors. They would have them call each individual doctor’s office to ask whether they provide prescriptions for contraception or perform abortions. They would rather force women to do this than just tell them the truth: that they aren’t licensed medical facilities, they don’t offer abortion and contraception services, and they won’t refer patients to providers that do.

Reproductive rights are human rights, and women deserve to know what they’re really getting into when they visit crisis pregnancy centers. Rather than providing medically sound information and treatment, CPCs promote their religious beliefs about abortion and contraception as fact. Some of them even receive government funds to promote these religious views. While the Alliance Defending Freedom may believe that it is defending religious liberty by representing CPCs in Illinois and California, it’s actually harming women in the name of religious freedom. The government must remain neutral on religious questions and promote secular, evidence-based reproductive healthcare. The government should also trust women to choose what is right for them and their families, whether it is abortion and contraception, parenting, or adoption.

To preserve our secular government, humanists should oppose public funding of religious crisis pregnancy centers and support legislation requiring CPCs to disclose that they aren’t licensed medical facilities that provide comprehensive reproductive health services. Humanists concerned about this issue can also become involved in the American Humanist Association’s Feminist Humanist Alliance, a proud member of the Act for Women Campaign, which is advocating for federal legislation that would protect women’s right to reproductive freedom. Humanists can also speak out against the misleading and dangerous practices that CPCs use and instead support their local, secular women’s healthcare centers.

Tags: ,