August 05, 2022

ICYMI: On Senate Floor, Warren Calls for Crackdown on Deceptive and Misleading Practices Used by Many Crisis Pregnancy Centers

On Senate floor, Senators Warren and Menendez (D-N.J.) engaged in debate with Senator Marshall (R-Kan.) on the deceptive and misleading advertising that many crisis pregnancy centers use dissuade patients from getting the reproductive care they need, including abortion care.

Watch Floor Speech HERE

Washington, D.C. – In case you missed it, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) delivered remarks on the Senate floor about the need to crack down on the deceptive and misleading practices employed by many crisis pregnancy centers. Senator Warren also spoke on the need to bring the Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation Act, which she introduced with Senator Menendez (D-N.J.), up for a vote to direct the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit deceptive or misleading advertising that many CPCs use to dissuade patients from getting the reproductive care they need, including abortion care. The legislation would  empower the Commission to enforce these rules and collect penalties from organizations that violate the law.

Watch Senator Warren’s full remarks HERE

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Mr. President, across this country, Americans are facing aggressive attacks on their reproductive freedom. An extremist Supreme Court and radical right-wing politicians have made clear they see women as second class citizens and that government—government, not the person who is pregnant, but government—should be making decisions about whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. 

In this extraordinary moment, we must do everything we can to ensure that patients get the health care and reproductive services that they need – and that includes protecting patients from the deceptive practices of some so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” or CPCs.

Nationwide, there are over 2,500 known CPCs, although some claim the number is closer to about 4,000. Now, before Roe was overturned, over 16 million women of reproductive age lived closer to a CPC than to an abortion clinic. Now, some estimate as many as 34 million women do – and today in Massachusetts, CPCs outnumber true abortion clinics by about 3 to 1.

CPCs often lure women seeking legitimate reproductive care – including abortions – into their facilities by advertising themselves as comprehensive reproductive health care providers. But this is flatly untrue.  Many of these CPCs are not health care providers, and they often operate specifically to deceive pregnant women with the goal of preventing them from having abortions. 

CPC websites often feature images of people in white lab coats and promises of services like ultrasounds or STD tests. Yet CPCs rarely employ licensed physicians or offer a full range of reproductive health services. According to one study, 84% of CPCs had no physician, and 75% had no registered nurse even affiliated with the staff. In fact, of the staff that did have some medical training, most worked part-time or as volunteers. As for the services they provide, the same study found that only 1 out of 607 CPCs provided contraceptive care, and 95 percent of CPCs offered no prenatal care—none, zero.  Most have no doctors, no nurses, and offer no medical care, but they have a lot of medical opinions. Nearly two-thirds promoted medically unsound claims, such as offering information about unproven and unscientific “abortion pill reversal” treatments.

Deception is at the heart of the operation for many CPCs. The director of a CPC in Texas explained to the Washington Post how she revamped operations so her center could pull in more people who were seeking an abortion. The director paid thousands of dollars to ensure that searches for phrases like “need an abortion” would lead people to her center, and she filled the website with phrases like “I Want An Abortion” and promised “Confidential Abortion Consultation — No Cost to You.”  

The website is so deceptive that the director said she even receives angry calls from anti-abortion advocates who want to know why her center even talks about abortion – to which she replies, “How else do you get an abortion-minded girl to know that you’re there?” 

Deception is wrong. No one should be deceived—directly or indirectly—about the services they can access or the risks of receiving care. That is particularly true for someone under great stress and time constraints who is coping with an unplanned pregnancy. 

And that is why I am glad to introduce the Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation Act with Senator Menendez – and why I am joining him today in calling up this legislation for a vote. Our bill directs the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit deceptive or misleading advertising related to the provision of abortion services. It also empowers the Commission to enforce these rules and collect penalties from organizations that violate the law. 

This is far from a radical proposal: For more than a hundred years, the FTC has been authorized to prosecute entities that use deceptive practices. And let me be clear: any crisis pregnancy center that operates fairly, disseminates factual information, and is clear about what services it does and does not provide would be free to continue its work. 

This bill is not about preventing parents from receiving diapers or other supplies if they have chosen to continue a pregnancy. This is about organizations that deliberately deceive women and girls who are seeking help to terminate a pregnancy. And unfortunately, deception is at the heart of the typical CPC’s business model.

As the director of a CPC explained, the deception begins when women search for an abortion provider.  The deception then continues once women walk through the doors of a crisis pregnancy center. I just want to tell you a bit about the experience of a young woman living in Massachusetts who visited a crisis pregnancy center earlier this year.  

Now, after finding the facility, which promised a “free abortion consultation,” this woman was asked to fill out forms to disclose personal information.  She was repeatedly lied to about how far along she was in her pregnancy.  She was told—falsely—that terminating her pregnancy would increase her risk of breast cancer and depression and that an abortion could mean that she could never become pregnant in the future. And sadly, her experience is not unique.

Here’s the kicker: women and girls visiting CPCs, like this young woman, often fill out forms and answer questionnaires requesting both personal identification and personal health information, which women provide because they believe they are in a medical facility that will protect their privacy. But because CPCs are not health care providers, these women have no legal protection and these centers have no legal obligation to protect those data. These unlicensed facilities are not subject to federal privacy laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. This means that CPCs could pass along private information about who was seeking an abortion, where that person lives, and so on—information that, in the wake of the Dobbs decision, is particularly dangerous.  

The evidence of abuse is overwhelming.  It’s time to crack down on deceptive and misleading practices many crisis pregnancy centers employ – because the last thing that a woman seeking reproductive care should have to worry about is whether she’s being tricked, lied to, or deceived about the medical care that she seeks. Thank you Mr. President. I yield.

Senator Menendez: While my colleague is still here, I would like to propose the question to my colleague through the chair. Does the first amendment allow you to promote fraud? Does the first amendment allow you to promote deception? Is it great work to lie to someone about what you are providing them? Is it great work to allow someone to get your vital health information, believing that you are a health provider and then being able to use that private information? 

Senator Marshall: To answer my colleague, the fraud and the deception is occurring in the abortion clinics. I can tell you story after story of patients crying in my office who went to Planned Parenthood for a pregnancy test and were scheduled for an abortion, coming to my office wondering, do I have to do this abortion? That’s where the fraud and deception is occurring. These women aren't being told about the potential complications of these abortion procedures. They're not being told that these abortion pills are going to cause pain and cramping and bleeding, that they could end up in the emergency room as well. They're not told about the complications from the abortion procedures. That's where the fraud and deception is present. You talk about this as reproductive services. You're afraid to say the word abortion in these clinics. That's the fraud and deception. This isn't reproductive services. These are abortions. This is taking the life of the unborn. Thank you, Mr. President. 

Senator Warren: Actually could I? Can I ask you a question then because I am a little confused, I think,  by what's just happened here. I presume deception is wrong, whoever does it. So if we just said, no deception around pregnancy services, would you be willing to support this? 

Senator Marshall: Mr. President, we could never support any part of this legislation. I think the deception and fraud is occurring on the part of abortion clinics. This is a threat to our first amendment rights, and I think, like I said in my opening remarks, this is just simply unacceptable. That's why we continue to object. Thank you. 

Senator Menendez: Mr. President, if I may ask my colleague through the chair, is it right, no matter who gets the information by fraud, to give your most private health – surely as a doctor – the Senator would say that no one should give up their health information to an entity that does not preserve it under HIPAA laws. So could the Senator not join us if we limit it to fraud that ultimately has that fraud create the insecurity of HIPAA information? 

Senator Marshall: Mr. President, I think this is not the place to try to rewrite legislation. Of course I'm against all fraud. I think all fraud is bad. I think that I'm all for the truth, all for protecting patients' personal information. But I'm also here proud to say what great work that these clinics do. I'm not sure what you are even accusing them is even true. I have not witnessed that. The pregnant clinics that I have seen do great work for these folks. They truly do sit down and talk with them. They give them a hand up. They do so many great things. 

I don't know where this fraud and deception is coming about except that they're talking to women and saying, do you realize that your baby has a heartbeat? Do you realize that your baby can feel pain at 14 weeks? Do you realize that your baby recognizes the voice of your husband right now? Do you recognize – so I think those are great things to share with patients, how wonderful life is, that we're all wonderfully, beautifully made in the womb, that life begins at conception. I think that's all the truth that should be shared with them. So, no, I don't think there's anything you could do with this legislation that could change it that I could support. And I continue to object. Thank you, and I yield.

Senator Warren: Mr. President, then could I ask through you another question and that is, if we're not talking about the fraud part, can we at least talk about collecting health information, that any so-called crisis pregnancy center – I'm sorry, is the Senator leaving? The one who said that it's important to protect private health care information? That at least we could agree that private health care information – I guess the Senator is just going to walk off the floor. So the question would have been, how about agreeing that anyone that collects information about a pregnancy and collects medical and personal information has to be bound by HIPAA so that that information is fully protected? That would be my question, Mr. President. But since there's no one here to answer it on the Republican side, I guess we will have to leave it for today. Thank you. 

Senator Menendez:  I would like to answer the Senator's question. That makes eminent sense that we would protect HIPAA information regardless of who is in a position to maybe have access to collecting it. And therefore, in the first instance, you shouldn't collect it if you're not a medical entity, but if you do, you should be ultimately bound by the same guarantees that anyone else would be guaranteed. You know, it would baffle me that particularly a medical professional, a doctor, would suggest that HIPAA information is something that we shouldn't protect. I think that at a minimum we should all be able to agree to that. 

Senator Warren: This is a reminder again why I am so honored to fight alongside Senator Menendez. I don't think anyone should be deceived, and particularly a woman who is seeking information about termination of a pregnancy, and I don't believe anyone's private medical information should be shared. The idea that these crisis pregnancy centers gather information from women who believe they are giving it to a medical provider, and that information will be protected, and that that is not the case, is truly despicable. Thank you again, Senator Menendez. Thank you, Mr. President.