July 15, 2024

State officials launched a new public awareness campaign Monday that targets crisis pregnancy centers that they say purport to offer legitimate reproductive health care but ultimately provide misleading information that can deter patients from going through with abortions.

A pro-family advocacy organization later slammed the use of taxpayer dollars to launch the campaign, expressing hope that the campaign would not work and rather motivate more people to connect with the centers in question.

Campaign ads in English and Spanish, which launched Monday, are intended to help Bay Staters understand the full scope of reproductive care options and recognize the crisis pregnancy centers, which are also known as anti-abortion centers or pregnancy resource centers. State officials say there are nearly 30 centers in Massachusetts, though only four are subject to Department of Public Health licensure.

State officials said the campaign is the first of its kind in the U.S.

“It pulls back the curtain on the anti-abortion centers and their deceptive practices. It counter-punches to the vast amount of misinformation and disinformation that the centers peddle every day, deceiving people who may be frightened or confused as they find themselves at a crossroads,” state Department of Public Health Commissioner Robbie Goldstein said at Women’s Health Services, a reproductive health clinic where anti-abortion activists typically gather.

He was joined at the press conference by Health and Human Services Secretary Kate Walsh; U.S. Reps. Katherine Clark and Jake Auchincloss; Sens. Cindy Friedman and Becca Rausch; and Reps. Ruth Balser, Marjorie Decker and Tommy Vitolo, among other officials and activists, including Reproductive Equity Now Executive Rebecca Hart Holder. Their show of support for reproductive health care here comes nearly two years after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

The department said it developed the campaign with the Reproductive Equity Now Foundation, and that it uses $1 million in funding from a fiscal 2023 supplemental budget. Campaign messaging will appear on social media platforms, billboards, radio and transit.

The awareness campaign is slated to run for “many months this year” to maximize its reach, Goldstein told reporters.

Clark accused “extremists” of opening up fake abortion clinics, and she said their broader objective is focused on securing a nationwide abortion ban.

“This awareness campaign will save lives, and I think it will be a model for states across the country,” Clark said.

The Massachusetts Family Institute, which describes itself as a “faith-based, pro-family advocacy organization,” has previously criticized the Legislature for approving a $1 million “smear campaign” against the centers.

“Over the past two years, pro-abortion activists have failed to silence charitable pro-life pregnancy resource centers through censorship laws at the local and state levels. But turning to a new tactic, these activists have partnered with the State to launch a public smear campaign against the centers,” Institute staff attorney Sam Whiting said in a statement to the News Service Monday afternoon. “It is scandalous that the State would misuse a million dollars in taxpayer funds to defame these charities, which provide critical help to pregnant women and save vulnerable babies. We hope that the State’s campaign will have the opposite of its intended effect and that more women than ever before will reach out to their local pregnancy resource center for support.”

Walsh urged people who are “harmed” by anti-abortion centers to file a civil rights complaint with the attorney general’s office. The secretary called abortions a “fundamental aspect of reproductive health care.”

Reproductive Equity Now published a guidebook in May alleging that the centers offer medical disinformation, are located near legitimate abortion clinics to confuse patients and may lie to patients about how far along they are in their pregnancy.

Hart Holder said Monday the volume of anti-abortion centers is more than double the volume of legitimate abortion care providers in the commonwealth.

“They’re here, they’re dangerous, but today, we’re saying, ‘enough.’ Today, we’re telling the people of Massachusetts to avoid anti-abortion centers,” Hart Holder said. “Information is power when it comes to making personal reproductive health care decisions, and this campaign is about putting power in the hands of people by calling out anti-abortion centers’ deceptive and dangerous practices.”

Reproductive Equity Now has previously sounded the alarm about Clearway Clinic in Worcester, which has come under scrutiny after a woman filed a class-action lawsuit against the facility, claiming her ectopic pregnancy was misdiagnosed. The facility is located across the street from a Planned Parenthood clinic, Hart Holder said.

On its website, Clearway Clinic says it is a state-licensed facility, with board-certified doctors and nurses, that offers free health care for women in central and western Massachusetts. The clinic did not respond to New Service questions Monday.

“We do not provide, prescribe, or refer for abortions, and we are careful to disclose this fact before setting up any appointments,” the clinic’s website states. “Our team of medical professionals provide objective, non-judgmental medical care in the time that you need it most. We are here to educate, support, and encourage every one of our patients.”

Goldstein said anti-abortion centers have one specific goal, which is to block people from getting the procedure.

“These centers target marginalized populations, specifically people of color, young people, and those who may not have the means to afford a child,” the commissioner said. “When people are denied factual information and the freedom to make fully informed decisions about their reproductive health, it can lead to worse mental and physical outcomes.”

Bianca Passarelli, a nurse practitioner at Women’s Health Services in Brookline, said anti-abortion centers also target low-income and uninsured patients. Passarelli said she often sees patients who initially sought care at anti-abortion centers, where she claims they were emotionally manipulated, such as by receiving ultrasound photos printed with phrases like, “Hi mom” or “I love you mommy.”

“They want patients to remain pregnant until it’s too late to make any other decision. They tell patients that if the pregnancy is not meant to be, they will have a miscarriage, and they keep coming back to anti-abortion centers for more free counseling, more ultrasounds, more diapers until it’s too late,” she said. “When patients come to our clinics, they question our care — why wouldn’t you question care when you have been previously deceived?”

The Department of Public Health hinted at a public awareness campaign in January, when officials issued guidance about the centers after receiving complaints. Most of the centers are connected to national advocacy or religious organizations pushing an anti-abortion agenda, according to the department.

“Absent the provision of medical care, DPH does not have jurisdiction over these facilities and cannot oversee the quality of services they provide,” the agency said. “However, if these facilities are providing medical care or advertising services that are consistent with a clinic, DPH maintains a responsibility to oversee the safe provision of medical services and health care in the state.”

Many of the centers advertise free pregnancy services, and offer pregnancy testing and ultrasounds with no health insurance required. Some center leaders have argued their clinics do not engage in deceptive practices, and supporters say they offer options for those facing unplanned pregnancies. One center in Revere told WBUR its staff are upfront about the fact that it does not provide abortions.

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