Members of Chicago feminist group FURIE protest the crisis pregnancy center The Women's Center in Chicago on Nov. 15, 2014. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

A landmark religious freedom case especially threatens low-income women and those of color

(RNS) — A case going before the Supreme Court this week could redefine public accountability for organizations that provide false information or mislead women about their reproductive health options under the guise of religious freedom.

The court will hear arguments in NIFLA v. Becerra on Tuesday (March 20). For years, fake women’s health centers have exploited women by masquerading as real health clinics, often locating next to real clinics, adopting nearly identical names and even clothing their nonmedical staff in scrubs, all to give the impression of being a genuine health provider. The plaintiff in the case now before the Supreme Court, the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, joins these fake women’s health centers in trying to overturn the Reproductive FACT Act – a commonsense California law that requires these storefront operations to explain that they are not a licensed medical facility and provide information on how to find one.

This law was enacted to curb the harm caused by fake health centers and reduce the delays in getting real care that women experience when they are duped by these tactics. Women need accurate information about their options when it comes to pregnancy and family planning – not shame, coercion or misinformation. The lies that these fake centers tell endanger the health and safety of pregnant women – especially low-income pregnant women, women of color and immigrants.

Fake women’s health centers have a well-documented history of providing inaccurate, incomplete or misleading information with the aim of coercing women to continue a pregnancy. Moreover, some women may choose to avoid or delay seeking care from actual medical professionals after consulting the staff of these centers, potentially leading to serious health complications that could have been identified and treated earlier.

These centers also advertise heavily and frequently target young women and communities of color, including Asian-American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, women. Many of these operations are also deliberately located in low-income neighborhoods, neighborhoods of color, urban centers and counties with higher than average rates of segregation. AAPI women are already a medically underserved community due to a lack of information and resources that are culturally sensitive and provided in the languages we speak. Fake health centers create additional barriers to the care we need. It’s shameful.

Every day, AAPI women make reproductive decisions while being subject to discrimination and racial stereotypes about their countries of heritage. For example, we have seen Congress taking up the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, which pushes abortion care out of reach and perpetuates harmful stereotypes about AAPI women – in addition to abuses of prosecutorial discretion to criminalize pregnancy and punish the reproductive decisions and health outcomes.

When women are confronted with false choices, or even worse, not given agency over the conditions under which we become parents, the outcome can be devastating. Allowing fake health centers to spread their misinformation in our communities does real harm to low-income communities and women of color and threatens our ability to make decisions about our own reproductive health.

This landmark case is another reminder that women, especially low-income women and those of color, must deal with threats from coercive laws and fight for agency over our bodies. Whether it is not being able to make our own reproductive decisions, dealing with horrible and unsafe working conditions or having to worry about our documentation status, women of color in this country are constantly faced with false choices. Many of us do not get to have a say in what happens to our bodies, our families and our communities.

Fake women’s health centers and religious rights groups have argued that the Reproductive FACT Act violates their freedom of speech. But this is not about freedom of speech. Let’s be clear: This case is about a deliberate effort by opponents of abortion to mislead and silence the conversation around reproductive decisions – particularly at a moment when women need real information and quality care. Fake health centers create a smokescreen that deflects from the real issue – that all women, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexuality or socioeconomic class, deserve to be fully informed and empowered to make their own decisions about their reproductive health.

As a Christian, I am deeply concerned to see people who profess to be Christians using deceptive tactics to lure women into making the wrong decision – thus forcing them to deal with unintended consequences. Religious beliefs about abortion may vary, but I am certain that the Christian faith remains centered on the values of integrity and truthfulness, not exploiting the concerns of vulnerable communities.

In these difficult times, we should recommit ourselves to trying to understand others whom we may disagree with. We need to treat our fellow human beings with kindness and compassion – no matter what our personal beliefs.

(Sung Yeon Choimorrow is executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)