‘Crisis pregnancy centers’ could face lawsuits under Illinois’ expanded consumer fraud act

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Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul stands with fellow abortion rights advocates on Thursday to celebrate the signing of a bill allowing Illinoisans to sue crisis pregnancy centers that engage in “deceptive acts” aimed at deterring abortions. | Capitol News Illinois photo by Hannah Meisel

CHICAGO – So-called crisis pregnancy centers can now face lawsuits if they engage in “deceptive acts” aimed at deterring women from seeking abortions under a new law signed by Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday.

Crisis pregnancy centers are facilities often affiliated with anti-abortion, usually religious, organizations. CPCs range from volunteer-run outfits that can’t offer much more than counseling to facilities with licensed medical professionals on staff who can perform exams. They advertise services such as pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and even material help like baby formula, diapers and parenting classes.

But abortion rights advocates say CPCs often employ aggressive tactics to confuse those seeking abortion care, including locating facilities near real abortion clinics, giving false information about the risks of abortions and attempting to physically divert the clients of real abortion providers as they arrive for their appointment.

The measure expands Illinois’ long-standing Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act to explicitly cover CPCs. Lawmakers also passed a similar expansion targeted at gun manufacturers and retailers in their spring session. Under the law, a court can award up to $50,000 in civil penalties for each violation of the law, although that doesn’t limit the court from awarding other damages or granting injunctive relief.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul pushed for both expansions of the state’s consumer fraud law, which allows anyone – including the attorney general’s office – to file suit against CPCs. Suits filed by the attorney general’s office are likely to make the biggest impact, although Raoul declined to discuss whether his staff is currently considering lawsuits against any CPCs whose tactics have already been reported to his office.

At a Thursday afternoon news conference touting the law in Chicago, Planned Parenthood of Illinois President and CEO Jennifer Welch said she’s hopeful the possibility of being sued serves as a deterrent for CPCs that are engaging in deceptive practices.

“What I anticipate is that our patients will no longer be removed from the site and will no longer be delayed from care,” Welch said. “They will no longer be lied to and deceived by people that offer no medical services.”

Within an hour of Pritzker’s signature on the bill Thursday, anti-abortion groups filed a lawsuit against Raoul in federal court, alleging the law will undermine CPCs’ First Amendment rights.

“This is a blatant attempt to chill and silence pro-life speech under the guise of consumer protections,” Thomas More Society Vice President Peter Breen – a former GOP state lawmaker – said in a news release. “Pregnancy help ministries provide real options and assistance to women and families in need, but instead of the praise they deserve, pro-abortion-rights politicians are targeting these ministries with $50,000 fines and injunctions solely because of their pro-life viewpoint.”

Raoul, however, said he was “confident” the law will withstand the challenge, citing other recent updates to Illinois’ longstanding consumer fraud law.

“You’re not free to lie to people and to use deceptive practices and to sometimes take people away from where they were intending to go,” Raoul said. “There’s nothing in the First Amendment that protects that type of action.”

At Thursday’s news conference, Abortion rights organizer Alicia Hurtado said clients of their group, the Chicago Abortion Fund, have experienced treatment from CPCs ranging from religious shaming to bad medical information. They also said CAF’s helpline has heard from clients who missed their appointments at abortion clinics in Illinois after being lured into mobile units run by CPCs that park outside of abortion care providers.

Hurtado has also heard from people who were told they were further along in their pregnancies than they actually were, putting them outside the window of when certain types of abortion care can be sought.

“These are lies,” Hurtado said. “This is reproductive coercion that traumatizes people who are seeking or even considering an abortion and can pose a financial and logistical burden that pushes abortion care out of reach, especially as people are forced to leave their home states for abortion care.”

CPCs range from volunteer-run outfits that can’t offer much more than counseling to facilities with licensed medical professionals on staff who can perform exams.

The advertising tactics used by CPCs would also be subject to scrutiny under the measure. Many centers keep their online profiles vague, sticking to language offering help and guidance for those who have recently found out they’re pregnant – and those wondering if they may be.

The facilities’ persuasion campaigns can often include advice and support for single parents or legitimate medical information on how a pregnancy is developing. But if those persuasion campaigns also include misinformation that exaggerates the health risks of abortion, that could qualify as deception under the new law. Some misdiagnoses by CPCs could also put them in legal jeopardy.

In 2016, lawmakers passed a state law aimed at forcing any health care provider opposed to abortion – including both crisis pregnancy centers and Catholic hospitals – to give information about where to get an abortion. While a federal judge blocked the law in 2017 on First Amendment grounds, litigation is still ongoing and a Rockford-area judge this spring set a bench trial for September.

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