On January 24, roughly 400 people swarmed outside a room in the Capitol Building in Olympia to defend Christian-run pregnancy clinics. Called "limited service pregnancy centers," they masquerade as comprehensive health care clinics by offering free pregnancy screenings and ultrasounds. But when pregnant women come in—expecting a range of medical services—they find that the 60 centers in Washington State don't offer prenatal medical care, information about birth control, or abortion referrals.
In fact, women say they're blindsided by sanctimony.
"I felt I was being held hostage," Jennifer Adams, who found herself pregnant at age 30 without health care coverage, testified before the state house Health Care and Wellness Committee. Adams visited the Care Net Pregnancy Center in Tacoma to get a pregnancy test administered so she could enroll in prenatal health care. Instead of a quick test, Adams recounted that the woman administering the exam was "judgmental, especially when she realized my partner and I were not married. She then asked me to read a Bible verse aloud and said she wanted me to know how important abstinence is before marriage. I felt my joyous event was being marred by this course of events."
Adams was asking lawmakers to approve the Limited Service Pregnancy Center Accountability Act, which would require these establishments to inform patients that they don't provide medical care, oppose birth control (aside from abstinence), and refuse to offer abortion referrals to women seeking those services. Not only would staff have to verbally disclose these basic facts, they'd have to post them prominently.
Adams and the roughly 70 pro-choice advocates on hand for the hearing were far outnumbered—roughly four to one. That's similar to the problem the bill's supporters—including Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice Washington—had last year, when a similar attempt to curtail these pregnancy centers died in committee under a crush of religious opposition.
So far, in what's become ground zero in Washington's debate over reproductive freedom, this year looks no different: While only 60 people from each side of the debate were allowed into the hearing chambers, in the hallways, anti-abortion advocates dominated the halls for hours, wearing pins that read "I ♥ Pregnancy Resource Centers."
"We've seen that they're incredibly efficient at turning out numbers," explains the bill's sponsor, Representative Judy Clibborn (D-41). "They made a good case for the things that bother them. We're working to change the bill so that their concerns are addressed."
Religious activists have persuasively told Clibborn and others that the bill goes too far. For example, it would allow women to file a lawsuit if the centers fail to disclose the limitations of their services, refuse to deliver pregnancy tests in a timely manner, or don't provide accurate information to women who aren't native English speakers. "If a patient is allowed to bring a special civil suit because they're unhappy with an interaction, that's an impossible goal to meet," Anita Showalter, the director of Life Choices of Yakima, testified at the hearing.
"These centers are staffed by volunteers—they're not armed robbers or timber thieves," John Panesko, an estate lawyer from Chehalis, testified at the hearing. "They don't belong in superior court. They're the epitome of Good Samaritans."
Their arguments are working—Clibborn says the bill is currently being watered down to appease religious activists. Instead of aggrieved women being able to seek $1,000 in civil damages (as well as recouped attorney's fees) against a center that fails to follow the rules, the language of the bill is being redrafted to say that first-time offending centers would receive a warning and second-time offenders would "maybe receive a small fine," says Clibborn.
Women's rights advocates say the harsh penalties are necessary precisely because the centers are staffed by volunteers who can currently lie—saying, for instance, that condoms are ineffective at reducing sexually transmitted diseases—and even withhold pregnancy results.
In the end, the pregnancy center did withhold Adams's pregnancy results, which women need to qualify for medical coupons or Women, Infants, and Children programs in Washington. "They said sending those results out wasn't their policy," said Adams. "My access to coverage for prenatal care was delayed."
"These centers look from the outside like they're full-blown women's medical centers, but they're not," explains Alison Mondi, a spokeswoman with NARAL Pro-Choice Washington. For example, Mondi says that even though these centers collect medical information, they're not required to keep that information private (under HIPAA standards) because they're not medically licensed. "People are giving up their personal sexual history—their medical history—to volunteers instead of medical professionals," Mondi says. "And the centers can do whatever they like with it, tell whomever they like."
Women's rights groups explain why they think religious activists are outmaneuvering them. "We've seen and heard that their calls to action are based on faith and belief," says Jennifer Allen, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Votes! Washington. "We've seen large groups of faith-based homeschoolers showing up. They have time that is a bit more flexible than others who might support this bill—who instead have to work."
That said, the numbers still shouldn't be in the centers' favor. Planned Parenthood of Washington provides services for 140,802 patients—and health information for another 35,000—on a budget of $52 million annually.
The Christian-powered centers say they provide (limited) services to only 62,000 women annually on a budget of just $18 million—much of that money privately donated. They say it's these women, and their families, who are turning out in such huge numbers to support them.
Another hearing on the senate version of the bill is slated for 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, February 2 (the morning after The Stranger goes to press). It remains to be seen if women's health advocates can muster the support needed to sway legislators.