6 of 8 LA pregnancy centers defy abortion notice law
Six out of eight Los Angeles-area "pregnancy centers" visited by KPCC are not complying with a new state law requiring them to notify their clients that the state offers access to low-cost and free abortions.
KPCC also found that authorities are not aggressively enforcing the law, which took effect Jan. 1. Some cities are deferring to the state, while others are waiting to receive complaints about pregnancy centers before investigating them.
There are 189 of these centers in California, according to the California ProLife Council. They provide women with pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and counseling. But critics say these facilities' main goal is to persuade women not to have abortions.
The state legislature passed the notification law last year following an undercover investigation of 45 pregnancy centers by NARAL Pro-Choice California. The probe found that "90 percent of them … lied about medical facts around pregnancy and abortion" and "attempted to shame and delay women from accessing abortion care," says Amy Everitt, the group's state director.
Pro-abortion rights groups like NARAL define any opposition to abortion as "lying," responds Matt Bowman, a lawyer representing the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, which counts more than 100 California pregnancy centers as members. He says efforts to regulate what pregnancy centers tell their patients amount to censorship.
Bowman is also senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing pregnancy centers in one of five lawsuits seeking to overturn the notification law. The suits allege the measure violates the centers’ freedom of speech and religion.
'I'm Pepsi...not Coca-Cola'
One of the centers not complying with the law is Foothills Pregnancy Resource Center in Duarte. Executive Director Lori Berg gave KPCC a tour of the facility, including what she calls the "options counseling room." There are a couple of chairs, some brochures and a small television.
"We have a video about the basic suction abortion – that's before first trimester," Berg explains. "But there's nothing gory. A woman can see for herself, this is the procedure."
Next door is a room with an ultrasound machine. The images are displayed on a big-screen TV mounted on the wall. There are also huge posters with pictures of fetuses at different stages of development.
Berg points to one poster: "This picture – eight weeks – can make a difference. Now, if someone says that’s coercive – this is science. This isn't something I dreamt up."
The center also offers support groups for women who've had abortions and gives away free diapers and clothes to new moms.
Asked to explain why she won't post the notice about access to abortions, Berg says the dispute over the law is like the Cola Wars.
"I'm Pepsi-Cola, I'm not Coca-Cola," Berg says. "Don't force me to put Coca-Cola posters or even hand out free coupons for Coca-Cola."
'Have you ever...driven over the speed limit?'
Women's Pregnancy Care Clinic, which has two locations in Pasadena and Whittier, isn't complying with the law either. Jeanette Kuiphof, who runs both centers, says she's not following the law because she hasn't been cited yet.
She draws an analogy: "Have you ever, ever driven over the speed limit? OK, did you run down to the police station and self-report yourself? Because that was the law. And you didn't comply with it."
There are three ways a center can comply with the law: It can post the notice in its waiting area, it can hand the notice to clients or it can give it to them online. Kuiphof says she'll choose the latter option, once her clinics switch to electronic health records this summer.
The law also requires a clinic to notify its clients if it is not licensed by the state as a medical facility.
KPCC also found centers in Glendale, Torrance and Los Angeles that don't post the abortion notice in their lobbies. The director of the Glendale center, Avenues Pregnancy Clinic, has not returned several phone calls. The other two – Pregnancy Help Center in Torrance and Los Angeles Pregnancy Services in L.A. - deferred to Alliance Defending Freedom.
Asked whether the Torrance and L.A. centers are complying with the law by distributing the notice directly to their clients, Alliance Senior Counsel Bowman said, "all I can confirm is that many of these centers have said, in their court papers, we cannot refer out women and their unborn children for the destruction of the child, paid for by the state of California."
The five lawsuits seeking to overturn the law are making their way through the courts. Judges have denied pregnancy centers' requests for preliminary injunctions in four of the suits, ruling the facilities must comply with the law while the cases are being heard. Plaintiffs' request for an injunction in the fifth lawsuit is pending.
Waiting for complaints
The penalty for not complying with the law is $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for each offense after that. The law says the state attorney general, city attorneys or county counsels "may" enforce it.
"The law was carefully structured to share responsibility between state and local entities to make sure that in every county, each and every pregnancy clinic was complying with the law," says Jill Habig, special counsel to Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Cities are taking different approaches to enforcement. Glendale and Whittier say that since they're not required to enforce the law, they're leaving it up to the state.
Duarte, home of Lori Berg's center, says it will enforce the law.
"So far the city of Duarte has not received any complaints, so at this point we haven't proceeded with any enforcement," says Deputy City Manager Karen Herrera.
Pasadena, home to one of Jeannette Kuiphof's centers, says it will enforce the law if it receives any complaints. L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer's office has the same position.
Back in Duarte, Lori Berg says there’s another reason she's not complying with the law: Her lawyers advised her not to because they expect the courts to overturn it.
For now, Berg is posting signs throughout her center that say, "You are treasured, valued, loved, supported, cherished," she says. "That's what we want women to feel, regardless of [their] choice."
For its part, the Attorney General Harris' office says it's committed to ensuring the abortion notice law is upheld in court.
This story has been updated.