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Ninth Circuit Upholds San Francisco Ordinance Making Crisis Pregnancy Centers Accountable for Misleading Advertising

Pregnant woman standing looking at camera in green park setting

Crisis pregnancy centers both in California and across the country have a history of publishing misleading advertising to draw pregnant women into their facilities where they often provide biased and medically inaccurate information.

Last week, the Ninth Circuit upheld San Francisco’s Pregnancy Information Disclosure and Protection Ordinance (The Ordinance), which targets this problem by making it illegal for crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) to make untrue or misleading statements about the services they provide.

The Ninth Circuit found that the Ordinance did not violate CPCs’ free speech rights because it only regulates false or misleading commercial speech, which is not protected by the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, the court found that the Ordinance did not discriminate against CPCs based on their anti-abortion ideology but rather neutrally regulates the threat to women’s health that stems from misleading advertising of abortion-related services.

Background on Crisis Pregnancy Centers in California

CPCs are anti-abortion organizations that offer a limited range of free services including counseling and referrals to prenatal providers. There are approximately 228 CPCs operating in California, many of which lure women with unplanned pregnancies into their facilities with ads claiming they offer unbiased options counseling.

San Francisco passed the Ordinance in response to findings that CPCs were paying for ads to appear at the top of internet search results for keywords like “abortions” and that many facilities sought to mislead women considering abortions by falsely claiming that their facilities offered abortion services and unbiased counseling.

A NARAL investigation found that once women sought care at California CPCs, they were given medically inaccurate information about the side effects of abortion procedures. In that investigation, almost 70 percent of CPCs provided false information that abortions increase the patient’s risk of breast cancer and infertility.

Impact of the Decision

Now the Ordinance, in conjunction with the California Reproductive FACT Act, can help curb the troubling practices observed from CPCs.

Statewide, the California Reproductive FACT Act provides protections for women seeking reproductive care at health facilities. The law requires that unlicensed facilities provide “clear and conspicuous” notice of their unlicensed status.  Licensed facilities must distribute materials indicating that California has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost family planning services, including abortions. This law ensures that women know whether they are receiving care from licensed professionals and receive information of what publicly funded resources are available to them.

After this decision, the Ordinance can now be enforced to protect pregnant San Franciscans from misleading advertising and ensure that women in San Francisco have access to comprehensive and medically accurate options for counseling. Furthermore, the Ordinance can serve as a model across the nation for communities seeking to stop the misleading advertising practices often used by CPCs.

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