Birth control: a medical necessity.
Birth control: a medical necessity. ISTOCK / AREEYA_ANN

Members of the King County Board of Health voted to pass a proposal today to require limited service pregnancy centers to post signs notifying consumers that they are not health care facilities. King County Council member Kathy Lambert was the only member to vote "no."

These clinics, also called crisis pregnancy centers, are controversial because some centers are operated by anti-abortion groups, members of which have reportedly given women medically inaccurate information and employed scare tactics. Currently, there are about 60 crisis pregnancy centers in Washington State, with about eight such centers operating in King County.

King County Council member Rod Dembowski, who chairs the county health board and sponsored the proposal, called today's vote "a major step forward" for women who may be in crisis. Seattle City Council member Lorena González says mandating these limited service pregnancy centers post these signs is a "critical public health issue."

"Transparency isn't burdensome, it's a requirement," González said.

Dembowski said the signs will serve as a "a good heads up to say, 'Hey, be careful if you're looking for all of your options, this may not be the place.'"

The meeting opened with more than an hour of public comment. Pro-lifers, some of whom were employees of local crisis centers such as CareNet, voiced concerns that today's vote would close their clinics. Several women told the board they were treated well and given medically accurate information. One woman noted that her local CareNet center told her about abortion options and even gave her a free ultrasound although she didn't have insurance.

King County Council member Joe McDermott assured crisis pregnancy center supporters that the clinics would not be closed, saying that the sign mandate was simply to provide information.

An equal number of women told the board they supported the proposal because some crisis pregnancy centers have "preyed" on vulnerable women by giving them false information about abortions and sharing personal information. Nanditha Narasimman, an intern at NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, told board members that "people shouldn’t have to distinguish between real and fake health care."

In a 2016 report (PDF) from Legal Voice, an intern who visited a CareNet center in Kenmore found that "the organization does not provide or refer for abortion or contraception."

When she met with a staff member, she asked about abortion; the center staff person urged her to view the website “"

This staff member went on to tell the tester that abortion could take a huge emotional and spiritual toll on her, and that many, if not all, women had regrets later in life. She was given medically inaccurate information about abortion, including that it causes infertility, sterility, breast cancer, and pelvic inflammatory disease.5 One of the staff then recognized her from her visit to another center owned by the same organization in Pierce County, and angrily asked if she was a reporter; despite that, the other staff person continued to meet with her and encouraged her to come in for STI screening, and told her that they have a nurse practitioner on staff. The pamphlets given the tester included a one-page form describing the symptoms of so-called “post abortion syndrome” – there is no such medically recognized syndrome.

One of the pamphlets, while not providing necessarily false information about condoms, strongly discourages condom use as being ineffective at preventing STIs and encouraged abstinence instead. She was also told that Care Net staff presented this information in local high school classes.

CareNet supporters took issue with Legal Voice's report, calling it "biased" and even "slanderous." Asked about these activists' concerns, county Council Member Dembowski said the board's legal team "considered both sides of this issue and, in the findings of fact, adopted many of the findings in the Legal Voice report."

After public comment, Board of Health members argued for more than an hour about a proposal amendment that would require crisis pregnancy centers to display their sign, which would note that their organizations aren't health centers, in English and 10 other languages. Members nit-picked the size of the font in which non-English languages would be printed. After a baffling amount deliberation over paper sheet sizes, board members finally agreed that all county-mandated signage would be printed in 48-point font on 11.7-inch by 16.5 -inch paper.

Leading up to today's vote, members of the health board have received around 1,000 form e-mails from pro-life group Family Policy Institute of Washington's supporters, urging them to strike down the proposal, said Liz Elwart, senior legislative aide to Dembowski.

Today's vote comes in the midst of a joint, week-long campaign by NARAL Pro-Choice America, Lady Parts Justice League, and Abortion Access Fund, among other abortion rights groups, to raise awareness about crisis pregnancy centers that allegedly spread misinformation. The groups are leading discussions about the campaign on social media under the hashtag #ExposeFakeClinics.