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Just across the street from the Planned Parenthood facility in the Bronx, an enormous yellow banner stretches across several storefronts. “Unplanned Pregnancy?” it asks in giant block letters. “Plan Your Parenthood!”
The banner belongs to an organization called Expectant Mother Care Frontline, and its proximity to Planned Parenthood is no accident. Like other centers of its kind, EMC, as it’s widely known, has for three decades targeted pregnant women seeking a doctor’s guidance — and potentially an abortion — by posing as a medical clinic, offering factually incorrect and often dangerous information in the process. And so far, there’s been little the city has been able to do to stop them.
“We’ve had patients that are on their way to come to us mistakenly go there and ask if they’re at Planned Parenthood, and they were told by someone there, yes,” says Elizabeth Adams, Planned Parenthood New York’s director of government relations. One woman, believing she was in a Planned Parenthood, says Adams, was shocked when EMC Frontline counselors told her an abortion would cause her to “bleed out and fall into a coma.”
More than a dozen such “crisis pregnancy centers” are in operation around New York City, though they’re much more common upstate and in other parts of the country. There are an estimated 4,000 of these centers nationwide, versus around 2,000 abortion providers.
In 2013, the state attorney general launched an investigation into EMC’s practices, concluding that the center “may be engaged in the unauthorized practice of medicine.” But it wasn’t until 2016 that the city finally passed legislation requiring all crisis pregnancy centers to make clear that they are not medical clinics. Specifically, the law stipulates that all advertisements promoting the centers’ services must say, in English and Spanish, “This facility does not have a licensed medical provider on site to provide or supervise all services,” in large, clear type. Failure to do so will theoretically result in a fine from the Department of Consumer Affairs ranging to $200 to $1,000 on the first offense, with succeeding violations ranging from $500 to $2,500.
Health advocates applauded passage of the law — the result of a years-long pitched battle against anti-abortion organizers. The trouble, though, is that enforcement has yet to get off the ground, says Danielle Castaldi-Micca, political director of the National Institute for Reproductive Health.
The Department of Consumer Affairs has two methods for monitoring the practices of crisis pregnancy centers, Castaldi-Micca explains. The first is to add a center to its general enforcement rounds, with inspectors dropping by to ensure that a location is hewing to a list of predetermined standards. No crisis pregnancy centers have been added to that list as of yet, and DCA could not offer a time frame for when they would be.
The other method of enforcement is for individuals to lodge their complaints with 311. Unfortunately, says Castaldi-Micca, the system still has some glitches, though NIRH is working with the city to get them fixed. “We know that complaints have been made from both online and by calling 311, and they haven’t gotten to Consumer Affairs,” she says. “There’s currently a breakdown that needs to get resolved.”
Asked whether DCA has investigated or fined any of the centers to date, an agency spokesperson said only that “fake pregnancy service centers that prey on women at one of the most vulnerable points in their lives have no place in NYC,” adding that DCA is investigating “a number of locations related to this law.”
In the meantime, these centers continue to collect clients, and funds. Earlier this year, it was disclosed that Queens city councilmember Peter Koo had donated at least $24,000 in council discretionary funds to a center in Flushing called Bridge to Life, which says it offers services like pregnancy tests, maternity clothing, and baby items to mothers in need. It also recently made an effort to open a location near Planned Parenthood’s Long Island City location — something Bridge to Life executive director Virginia Gallo initially denied to the Voice, though she conceded the matter after it was pointed out that the center’s newsletter mentioned that the organization was searching for nearby real estate “to bring our story of hope and compassion to women seeking abortions at the new Planned Parenthood.”
Gallo insists she has not tried to talk women specifically out of getting abortions. “Sometimes a woman with an unplanned pregnancy does not realize she has choices,” she said. She claims she does not advertise as a medical facility, and that her center’s signage is compliant with the law. (Images sent by both Planned Parenthood and Gallo reveal that Bridge to Life does not use the required language, the font they use is not the correct size, and the signage is not posted on each entrance as required by the new law.)
Asked whether he was aware that he was supporting an organization that failed to comply with DCA’s requirements, Koo wrote to the Voice that “These allegations are deeply troubling as full disclosure of services is required by law. I intend to look into them to ensure compliance and to ensure all women and families in our community have access to post-natal and reproductive health services.”
But advocacy groups take particular issue with EMC Frontline, which operates in three locations around the city. “We’ve heard some really gruesome stories from our patients, particularly things they were told that were really medically inaccurate — what abortions are, what they do, and the impact they can have on your health — to a scary degree,” says Planned Parenthood’s Adams. In some instances, she charges, a center will offer a woman a sonogram (for which a doctor is not necessary) and intentionally misdate the woman’s due date, which can then lead to her missing the window for an abortion.
Chris Slattery, who runs EMC Frontline, acknowledges to the Voice that the center has made “mistakes” in sonogram dates. “No one would do that intentionally,” he says, but adds, “Whether there have been mistakes made over the years, it’s possible.” He said he has told women that they can obtain an abortion up to their ninth month of pregnancy in New York — misinformation that can lead to women delaying their decisions until abortion is no longer an option.
As for whether he intentionally opens locations near Planned Parenthoods, Slattery says, “There’s no law against locating near abortion clinics.” Nowhere on EMC’s website are any of the required disclosures made, but Slattery insists that those requirements do not apply to him, since he claims to have medical personnel on site when performing procedures like ultrasounds.
For now, pro-choice organizations are doing what they can to mitigate the damage these centers are causing. “Their attempts to say they are not doing any harm have proven to be completely untrue,” says Adams. “New Yorkers deserve to have safe and timely access to the full range of high quality reproductive and sexual care, and that includes abortion. The tactics of delaying people’s access to care and confusing them have real implications.”