Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Limited Service Pregnancy Center Accountability Act (SB 5274 / HB 1366)

House Health Care and Wellness Committee Hearing – January 24, 2010

The legislation that was debated before the House Health Care and Wellness Committee on January 24th is designed to protect women from the deceptive practices at Limited Service Pregnancy Centers (LSPC) or so called Crisis Pregnancy Centers.  Advocates in favor of the bill explained to the Committee that the bill would require LSPCs provide women with accurate information about the services they provide and do not provide; namely that they do not provide abortion services or abortion referral services, do not provide comprehensive birth control information or information regarding contraception, and do not provide medical care for pregnant women.  The bill also requires LSPCs to provide women with their pregnancy tests results immediately and creates measures to protect women’s privacy rights. 

Specifically, the bill provides for the following: LSPCs will be required to (1) protect the privacy of health care information they collect from women; (2) provide pregnancy test results immediately; (3) disclose that they do not provide services or referrals for abortion or comprehensive birth control, and (4) do not provide medical care for pregnant women.
LSPCs prey upon uninsured, poor women – oftentimes teenage girls – providing them with inaccurate medical information designed solely to advance their anti-choice agenda.  They lure women specifically with the offer of free pregnancy tests.  HB 1366 does not seek to silence LSPCs but simply put in place safeguards that will protect vulnerable women from practices that can endanger their health and safety. 

Washington State budget cuts have increased the pressure on vulnerable women seeking free services – this reality only intensifies the need to ensure these women do not become even more susceptible to the LSPC agenda.  LSPCs target the same vulnerable women that the Republican controlled House of Representatives is targeting by trying to expand the discriminatory impact of the Hyde Amendment. 

If an organization chooses to offer medical services/advice to a community they must be willing to adhere to basic standards of regulatory scrutiny and transparency.

One of the more common practices LSPCs engage in is withholding pregnancy results or conditioning the release of those results based upon whether a woman indicates she intends to seek out abortion services or not.  Some of the women that testified at the Committee hearing recounted their experiences of feeling pressured and literally feeling like a hostage within LSPCs.  One woman was forced to read Bible passages aloud while another was repeatedly questioned about her religious beliefs. 

The true crisis that results from misinformation and the withholding of pregnancy test results deals specifically with the clients LSPCs serve – these women are generally poor and do not have health insurance.  These women often have no real options to find out if they are pregnant or have an STD.  There are approximately 46 LSPCs in Washington.  And although many cities have enacted legislation to protect women from these deceptive practices, including recently introduced legislation in New York City, Washington would be the first state in the country to provide such safeguards on a statewide basis.

Sara Ainsworth, Senior Legal & Legislative Counsel for Legal Voice, also testified at the hearing.  She presented the Committee with a detailed investigatory report sponsored by Legal Voice and Planned Parenthood.  Ms. Ainsworth explained that “the purpose of the investigation was to determine whether or not these organizations engaged in a systematic practice of deceptive tactics designed to prevent women from obtaining reproductive health services” after both organizations received repeated reports from women that LSPCs were engaging in deceptive practices designed to prevent women from seeking about abortion care. 

The authors of the report concluded the following:

  • Do not disclose the true mission of their organizations;
  • Give women false and misleading information about the risks and health effects of abortion;
  • Provide inaccurate information about pregnancy, miscarriage, contraception, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections;
  • Withhold medical records; and
  • Give women misleading information designed to delay their decision.

Ms. Ainsworth and a number of others testified that Care Net will not give out written results of your pregnancy test if you plan to get abortion.  They will want to know your religious beliefs, along with your medical and personal history.  They lie to women when by telling them that abortion can cause infertility; that Plan B causes future infertility if taken when pregnant; that abortion causes breast cancer; and that your chance for a miscarriage increases after you have an abortion.  They do not provide referrals or information about birth control.  And while they will warm women about the risks of sex they offer no information about how to protect oneself from STDs.  In fact, a Tacoma Care Net staffer told one woman that helped Legal Voice and Planned Parenthood investigate LSPCs that “the AIDS virus is so small it goes right through condoms like a grain of rice through a tennis racquet; condoms do not do anything to protect against STDs.”  And “Care Net in Puyallup provided paperwork stating that it would be “illegal” for a patient to use medical records generated by Care Net for the purpose of ‘abortion or abortion-related services’…” relying on specific provisions in Washington State law to justify this falsehood. 

You can read more about LSPCs in this study conducted by Legal Voice and Planned Parenthood.

Women have a right to know that these LSPCs will not provide this kind of information and need to know what price they will really pay in return for a free pregnancy test. 

The Chairperson for Life Services testified that the bill contains a limitless scope of litigation by creating special causes of action.  She explained that the legislature was targeting them based solely on political ideology and again emphasized her concerns about legal liability.  She also expressed concerns about the alleged onerous requirements resulting from civil claims, civil penalties, and disclosure requirements.  She alleged that these disclosure requirements penalize their interaction with clients and that their free speech was being singled out because LSPCs advance a pro-life message. 

A representative for the ACLU WA and NAPAWF addressed the Committee about the need to reaffirm a woman’s right to take control of her own health.  She specifically discussed the importance of addressing language barriers for women seeking out LSPC services; how important it is for these women to understand what they are being told at LSPCs – particularly when receiving information about pregnancy test results.  Women need to be provided with the capacity to understand the difference between a medical facility and an LSPC.   

Retired minister Kathryn Everett, representing the United Methodist Church, spoke out in favor of the bill.  She explained that she is opposed to the basic idea that one group’s religious beliefs should control another person’s health care choices; that using religion as an excuse to deceive women at LSPCs is wrong.  She told the Committee that LSPCs have a moral obligation to disclose what services they provide and to protect confidentiality of their clients.  Reverend Everett said that everyone has the right to make their own health care decisions and those who seek to deceive the poor and vulnerable women have an obligation to serve them with accurate and timely information.

Gynecologist Dr. Kate McLean discussed the risks associated with women going to LSPCs for help and the dangerous effects of delayed prenatal and abortion care.  She explained that an ethically sound clinic should have no problem explaining what services they provide and what services they do not provide, particularly when LSPCs engage in systematic practices that jeopardize women’s health.   

Others who testified against the bill were focused primarily on the risks of being sued by women who may be harmed by LSPCs.  Attorney John Panesko focused in on attorneys’ fees, and how the alleged litigation risks in the bill were designed to silence LSPCs and “sue” them out of business.

Another slippery slope argument advanced by those testifying against the bill was centered on the belief that the low income people they purport to serve will have nowhere else to go if LSPCs are forced to close their doors because of this bill. 

The individuals who testified against HB 1366 claimed that since they receive no public funding they should be exempt from regulatory control.  By contrast, these same individuals further explained that other groups, like Planned Parenthood, that actually receive public funds should be regulated. 

The question remains: Is it true that LSPCs receive no public funds?  The proliferation of these LSPCs has been facilitated for years under Bush era policies.  LSPCs around the country have received years of federal funding largesse from the abstinence only policies of the Bush administration

In fact, through 2009 LSPCs received substantial federal funding under abstinence only federal programs.
President Obama has pledged to end abstinence only program and support evidence based sex-education programs.  So the unanswered question remains: Has the Obama administration lived up to its pledge – has federal funding for LSPCs ceased under the President’s new agenda?

In January 2010 NARAL reported the following:

Recently, the crisis-pregnancy-center movement and its supporters have furthered their efforts by seeking—and often receiving—state or federal funding.  Funding may come in the form of direct allocations or tax credits in state budgets, through the establishment of "choose life" license plates (the revenues of which are used to fund LSPCs), the donation of special equipment, or even through federal “abstinence-only” programs.  

The concern about federal and state funding of LSPCs continues and we must be vigilant in ensuring there is no public funding despite the repeated claims from the LSPC advocates that they receive no public funds and therefore should not be subject to any state or federal regulation.  Legal Voice and Planned Parenthood recommended the following in their report:

Washington State should ensure that no state funds are used to support the activities of any limited service pregnancy center that engages in the actions found in this report, and no state agencies, local health departments, or school districts should refer women to these organizations for help with unintended pregnancies or medical care.

You can watch the full hearing here.

President Obama has called for a return to science based sexual education initiatives.  The struggle to realize this critical goal will be even more challenging for women with the current Republican controlled House of Representatives seeking to restrict abortion access to wealthy women as one of their primary legislative priorities.  House Republicans will only be encouraged to move further to restrict abortion access when newly elected Senate Republicans, such as Rand Paul, and Senator Roger Wicker recently co-sponsored the Life at Conception Act.  This law declares that the unborn are persons as defined within the 14th Amendment.  This legislative reality stands in direct contradiction to the pretense that Republicans are focused solely on the economy, jobs, and the national debt. 

The NWPC-WA has endorsed the Limited Service Pregnancy Center Accountability Act.  Here’s what you can do to help protect the women of Washington State from the deceptive LSPC practices.

Contact two or three members of the House Health Care & Wellness Committee and urge them to pass House Bill 1366 out of Committee.  

Specifically, the following Representatives need to be contacted immediately:
Cody, Eileen (D) Chair               (360) 786-7978
Jinkins, Laurie (D) Vice Chair      (360) 786-7930
Schmick, Joe (R)                      (360) 786-7844
Hinkle, Bill (R)                          (360) 786-7808
Bailey, Barbara (R)                   (360) 786-7914
Clibborn, Judy (D)                     (360) 786-7926
Green, Tami (D)                        (360) 786-7958
Harris, Paul (R)                         (360) 786-7976
Kelley, Troy (D)                         (360) 786-7890
Moeller, Jim (D)                         (360) 786-7872
Van De Wege, Kevin (D)             (360) 786-7916

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