When she was sixteen and worried she might be pregnant, Jessica Estes found herself at a Birthright clinic in St. Louis. It was free, for one thing.
“It felt like any other clinic,” she recalls. But that was not the case. Rather, Birthright is a “crisis pregnancy center,” and the organization’s services — as well as its state funding — are linked to its efforts to deter women from having abortions. As a teenager, Estes thought she was talking to medical professionals, doctors and nurses. It is likely that she was not.
This sort of ambiguity is at the center of a United States Supreme Court case known as NIFLA v. Becerra, who begins oral argument this morning. The case pits a national pro-life group against a california law require crisis pregnancy centers to inform clients of their stance on abortion services and disclose whether there is a licensed medical professional overseeing the facility. The clinics say the law violates their First Amendment rights.
“There’s this illusion that this is a clinic,” says Estes, now a statewide organizer for NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri. Along with other Missouri abortion rights activists, Estes made the trip to the nation’s capital yesterday; today, she is due to speak at a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court.
She says her talk will cover her own experiences with Missouri Crisis Pregnancy Centers, particularly how these clinics market themselves to women of color.
“He preys on vulnerable women,” she says. “I was a young black girl sitting across from an older white woman, and I remember a lot of shame about being sexually active, a lot of shame about the purpose of sex, which is to have a baby.” (She says they gave her a pregnancy test, but it was negative.)
It wasn’t until more than a decade later, when Estes joined NARAL, that she learned how these “fake clinics” work.
NARAL, indeed, provided key search cited by the California legislature when crafting the law currently being challenged by the Supreme Court. The organization faced a more hostile audience in Missouri. Last year, in a special session ordered by Governor Eric Greitens, the Missouri Legislature passed legislation that did the exact opposite, prohibition municipalities from enacting laws that sought to undermine “an alternative [sic] to the abortion agency or the operations or speeches of its officers, agents, employees or volunteers. »
“Missouri is in a particularly bad spot,” Estes says. The 2018 state budget allocates more than $6 million to pregnancy centers; of this total,[” target=”_blank”> about $4 million is diverted from federal welfare funds. As a condition for receiving the funding, the centers are prohibited from providing abortions or referring women to an abortion clinic.
And while the state continues to toy with additional cuts to welfare for individuals and families, the money keeps pouring in to clinics that often represent themselves as medical facilities, even when they’re not.
For now, the Supreme Court’s deliberations over the California law won’t change that. But NARAL Missouri director Alison Dreith points out that a Supreme Court decision in California’s favor could impact local abortion rights laws in the future.
“It would certainly give other states the authority to pass a similar policy that California did,” she says. And even if the law can’t pass the Missouri legislature — and realistically, considering the glut of anti-abortion laws proposed every session, it can’t — St. Louis’ own Board of Aldermen could pass its own law to force crisis pregnancy centers like Birthright to be up-front about their medical bonafides and stances on abortion services. Sure, that would put the city in conflict with Missouri’s state law, but Dreith says the city could then point to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in its defense.
“The First Amendment doesn’t give you the right to lie to women,” Dreith argues. “If a crisis pregnancy center or other entity wants to exist, they can be a resource, but they shouldn’t be able to lie shame and stigmatize women in a really vulnerable time of their lives.”
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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