‘Crisis pregnancy centers’ could face legal action under measure poised for Pritzker’s signature

Democrats pass three other measures shoring up reproductive health access

Rep. Terra Costa Howard, D-Glen Ellyn, the lead sponsor of a measure allowing individuals and the attorney general to sue crisis pregnancy centers if they engage in deceptive practices, speaks in favor of the bill this week on the House floor.

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois would become one of the first states to make so-called crisis pregnancy centers subject to the same consumer fraud standards as car dealerships, retailers and service-based businesses under a bill that will soon head to Gov. JB Pritzker.

Upon the measure becoming law, crisis pregnancy centers could be sued under the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act if they engage in “unfair methods of competition” or “deceptive acts or practices.”

Crisis pregnancy centers are facilities affiliated with anti-abortion, often religious, organizations designed to deter newly pregnant women from seeking an abortion.

Democrats working to expand Illinois’ role as a “haven” for abortion-seekers in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last summer overturning Roe v. Wade say CPCs often intentionally deceive those who are trying to end their pregnancies.

“Back in 2010, I walked into one of these fake clinics,” state Rep. Dagmara Avelar, D-Bolingbrook, said during debate on the bill in the state House this week. “When I was talking to the person in this clinic and I asked for my options, abortion was out of the question.”

Avelar, who sits on an abortion access working group that also pushed three other reproductive health-related bills through the House on Wednesday, remarked that 13 years after her visit to a CPC, “this is the right thing to do.”

CPC crackdown

Democrats who control supermajorities in the General Assembly easily passed Senate Bill 1909 on a 70-40 vote this week after a lengthy and emotional debate. The measure already passed the Senate in late March.

Under SB 1909, the attorney general’s office can investigate crisis pregnancy centers and take them to court. Alternatively, individuals can also sue the facilities under the state’s longstanding consumer fraud law.

CPCs frequently open in the vicinity of real abortion clinics and will advertise services ranging from pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and even material help like baby formula, clothing and parenting classes. The centers range from volunteer-run outfits that can’t offer much more than counseling to facilities with licensed medical professionals on staff who can perform exams.

According to an online map maintained by researchers at the University of Georgia’s Department of Public Health, Illinois has approximately 100 crisis pregnancy centers.

Regardless of how many services or what kind of support a CPC offers, their core goal is to discourage those seeking to end their pregnancies from going through with an abortion. CPCs also don’t refer patients to health care providers who do perform abortions or prescribe abortion pills, the most common method for ending pregnancies in the first trimester.

In 2016, lawmakers passed a state law aimed at forcing any health care provider opposed to abortion – including both crisis pregnancy centers and Catholic hospitals – to give information about where to get an abortion. While a federal judge blocked the law in 2017 on First Amendment grounds, litigation is still ongoing and a Rockford-area judge recently indicated the matter would be heard in a bench trial.

1st Amendment or ‘deception’?

Anti-abortion groups have promised litigation over SB 1909, and state Rep. Bill Hauter, R-Morton, who also is an anesthesiologist at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, took issue with the fact that any “aggrieved party” would be able to sue a CPC.

“So Planned Parenthood of Chicago can rain down complaints as an ‘aggrieved party’ on a pregnancy center in Peoria, Illinois,” Hauter said during debate on the bill.

Hauter, whose wife is the director of the Living Alternatives Pregnancy Resource Center in Pekin, described the couple as “heavily involved” in crisis pregnancy centers. Under SB 1909, Hauter’s wife could be sued under Illinois’ consumer fraud law, although as a licensed physician, Hauter could not. The bill exempts medical professionals with active licenses who work or volunteer at CPCs are exempted from the extended purview of the state’s consumer fraud law as they’re subject to other state regulations like medical malpractice laws.

Hauter also characterized the bill as “viewpoint discrimination.”

But Democratic proponents of the bill say they’ve intentionally crafted it to not tread on CPCs’ First Amendment rights.

“There is nothing in this bill that limits speech, nothing at all,” lead bill sponsor state Rep. Terra Costa Howard, D-Glen Ellyn, said while debating the bill. “‘Cause if you’re not lying, what do you have to worry about?”

Some CPCs are upfront about their mission and will tell abortion-seekers early on that their facilities neither perform abortions nor write prescriptions for abortion pills – or even refer patients to providers who will.

But critics of CPCs claim that keeping abortion-seekers in the dark for as long as possible is a central tenet of their strategy, claiming that initial consultations are stretched into subtle persuasion campaigns to stay pregnant.

Costa Howard said she’s heard from women who said they were held behind closed doors at CPCs.

“Yes, I believe that happened because I believe women,” she said.

CPCs’ persuasion campaigns can often include advice and support for single parents or legitimate medical information on how a pregnancy is developing. But if those persuasion campaigns also include misinformation that exaggerates the health risks of abortion – claims Costa Howard referred to as “debunked science” – that would qualify as deception under SB 1909. Misdiagnoses by CPCs could also put them in hot water, she said.

The advertising tactics used by CPCs would also be subject to scrutiny under the measure. Many centers keep their online profiles vague, sticking to language offering help and guidance for those who have recently found out they’re pregnant – and those wondering if they may be.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who pushed for SB 1909, gave one example of alleged deceptive practices that he witnessed while visiting a Planned Parenthood location in Illinois.

Raoul said in a statement after SB 1909 passed the House on Wednesday that as he approached the clinic, “people who appeared as though they might work there were outside attempting to divert us away from the health center.”

Under the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, a court can award up to $50,000 in civil penalties for each violation of the law, although that doesn’t limit the court from awarding other damages or granting injunctive relief.

During debate on the bill, Republicans asserted that CPCs saved lives. But in an emotional speech, state Rep. Gregg Johnson, D-East Moline, told the story of how his mother died from preeclampsia in 1972 – just six months before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling legalizing abortions.

After saving money and traveling to New York to get an abortion after her doctor advised that she wouldn’t survive another pregnancy, she was turned away because she was too far along, Johnson said. He was eight at the time of her death and said he didn’t remember her at all.

“Our lives were thrown into chaos, because our mother had no other option than to die and leave us,” Johnson said of his mother’s death at 33 years of age. “An increasingly activist Supreme Court has created a situation in which countless more families just like ours will be thrown into chaos and women and families all over the world will experience the same grief and trauma that ours did.”

Johnson also revealed that years later, his youngest sister became pregnant at an early age and walked into a crisis pregnancy center “that offered her nothing but group prayer and disturbing pictures.”

Other abortion-related measures

Another measure pushed through by Democrats would require university and community college campuses to maintain at least one vending machine where students can buy the emergency contraceptive Plan B “morning after” pill – a medication that, if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, will stop or delay the female body from releasing an egg from an ovary.

That proposal, Senate Bill 1907, requires the colleges to sell Plan B or a generic alternative at a discounted rate from what they pay for it. If universities or community colleges were inclined, they could turn the vending machine mandate into a full-blown “wellness kiosk” and also offer prophylactics, non-prescription drugs, pregnancy tests and menstrual products. The measure already passed the Senate in March.

Another bill soon to hit Pritzker’s desk is a follow-up to a measure passed in January that mandates certain insurers cover medication abortion, gender-affirming hormone therapy and HIV medication. Bill sponsor state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, defined it as “clean-up” language.

But Senate Bill 1344 also explicitly exempts reports from the Abortion Care Clinical Training program from being subject to the Freedom of Information Act, in a move Cassidy said is aimed at protecting abortion-seekers in rural areas. The program, established last year, gives grants to fund abortion training programs at community-based provider sites.

Also this week, Democrats pushed through an initiative of Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias. House Bill 3326 would prohibit out-of-state law enforcement from getting access to Illinois’ automatic license plate reader data unless they stipulate they won’t be using that information to investigate someone seeking an abortion in Illinois or based on his or her immigration status. The bill passed on partisan lines and has yet to be heard in a Senate committee.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Hannah Meisel - Capitol News Illinois

Hannah Meisel is a state government reporter for Capitol News Illinois