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California sues religious pregnancy clinics over ‘abortion pill reversal’ claims deemed false

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta is suing controversial clinics known as crisis pregnancy centers, alleging false advertisement of “abortion pill reversal,” a procedure considered experimental and opposed by top medical organizations.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, is the latest attempt by state Democratic leaders to rein in faith-based antiabortion clinics that have so far evaded legislative attempts at stricter regulation despite health warnings about the procedure.

Bonta called the centers “predatory,” alleging they “took advantage” of vulnerable pregnant patients by making false promises. He is asking a judge to block “further dissemination of the misleading claims,” citing violation of California’s false advertising and unfair competition laws.

“Those who are struggling with the complex decision to get an abortion deserve support and trustworthy guidance — not lies and misinformation,” said Bonta, who held a news conference Thursday in Oakland.

The so-called reversal, touted by such pregnancy centers across the state and nation, involves ingesting the hormone progesterone after a patient has taken a dose of abortion-inducing pills. The practice has been deemed “unethical” and “not supported by science” by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecol- ogists.

In 2019, UC Davis researchers halted a study of the practice after three out of 12 women participating in the medical experiment were sent to the hospital for “very significant bleeding.”

The lawsuit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court on Thursday, names the antiabortion group Heartbeat International and RealOptions Obria Medical Clinics, a San Francisco Bay Area chain, as defendants, alleging they have violated state law by falsely advertising the procedure as safe and effective.

The California Department of Justice does not call for an end to the practice, which is offered at other clinics besides those named in the suit, but is specifically targeting claims on websites that claim to assure its safety and efficacy.

Heartbeat International said in a statement Thursday that through its network hotline, women have sought services because they regret their decision to end a pregnancy.

“These women deserve the right to try and save their pregnancies. No woman should ever be forced to complete an abortion she no longer wants,” the organization in an email.

Bonta cited a study by UC San Francisco in 2020 that showed that more than 95% of women surveyed did not regret their abortion.

“At five years post abortion, relief remained the most commonly felt emotion among all women,” the study stated.

The religious crisis pregnancy center industry has long been accused of misleading women about their services in order to steer them away from abortion. Some of the California centers advertise “pre-abortion screenings” but do not provide abortions, and promote misinformation about the procedure that has been refuted by the American Cancer Society and other leading medical organizations.

But supporters of the centers say they are an asset to communities, pointing to resources offered to parents in need, such as diapers and car seats and some health screenings. Some of the state’s clinics have denied claims that they pressure patients out of having an abortion or are intentionally misleading them, and say they have a right to oppose the procedure just as others do to support it.

Even in liberal California, home to the nation’s strongest abortion access protections, past legislative attempts to more strictly regulate crisis pregnancy centers have failed, in part because of legal arguments regarding constitutionally protected freedom of speech and religion.

Clinics across the state that advertise “abortion pill reversal” are licensed by the California Department of Public Health to operate. The Real Options centers named in Thursday’s lawsuit are state-licensed community clinics.

“Anyone who is going to a crisis pregnancy center needs to know: crisis pregnancy centers may attempt to delay appointments or provide misinformation about the legality or safety of abortions. They may provide inaccurate health information,” Bonta said Thursday. “They often look like and are located near real reproductive health facilities.”

In 2018, the Supreme Court blocked enforcement of a California law that would have required clinics to notify patients that the state offers subsidized abortions, birth control and prenatal care.

Known as the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency Act, the bill was sponsored by then-Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, the current vice president.

The court’s opinion was led by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, who said that the law unfairly targeted faith-based centers by forcing them to provide a “government drafted script” about services they oppose.

A bill this year aiming to limit crisis pregnancy centers quietly stalled in the state Legislature. Opponents of the bill, including the California Catholic Conference, said the proposals were prejudiced, in favor of one reproductive health choice over another.

There are at least 165 crisis pregnancy centers in California, and they outnumber abortion clinics, according to a report issued last year by the Alliance, a women’s advocacy collaborative.

The report stated that many centers in the state make “deceptive and misleading” claims, do not have a physician on staff and offer nondiagnostic ultrasounds that are not recognized as a medical service but as a “keepsake” or souvenir.

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