A nonprofit watchdog group has filed a consumer complaint with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, asking him to look into the “deceptive business practices” of two networks of fake clinics, or crisis pregnancy centers, that deceptively market themselves to unsuspecting pregnant people in order to deter them from seeking abortion services.
The June 5 complaint accuses Elizabeth’s New Life Center (ENLC), in Dayton, and Heartbeat of Toledo of violating the state’s Consumer Sales Protection Act, said Daniel Stevens, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability.
ENLC operates seven fake clinics in the Dayton area, which it calls Women’s Centers of Ohio; Heartbeat of Toledo operates two fake clinics under the name Your First Look Women’s Center. Both are affiliates of the anti-choice umbrella group Heartbeat International.
People looking for abortion information online are often led to the websites of these fake clinics, which don’t support or provide abortion care but hide that information deep in the site or in fine print, according to the complaint.
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The main page of Your First Look Women’s Center, for instance, features a pull-down menu that includes a link for “Abortion.” The link leads to a page that includes information about abortion alternatives, ultrasounds, and STD treatment. Only at the very bottom, in small print, does it state: “We do not provide or refer for abortion services.”
“The message is that crisis pregnancy centers should not mislead women. They should be upfront with their advertising and marketing materials. On their website and anything they publish, their information should be straightforward and accurate, and they shouldn’t be allowed to mislead anyone,” Stevens told Rewire.News.
The attorney general’s office will review the complaint and may decide to investigate the allegations and file a lawsuit, or to negotiate with the fake clinics to change their practices, Stevens said. A violation of the consumer act, according to Ohio courts, does not require intent or knowledge of the perpetrator. A violation is established if the act “has the likelihood of inducing in the mind of the consumer a belief which is not in accord with the facts.” Even if the fake clinics argue they are not engaged in outright fraud, their actions may be found to be violating the law, the complaint notes.
The Ohio fake clinics even mimic the names and appearance of abortion clinics, the complaint alleges. One of the ENLC Women’s Centers is across the street from Dayton’s only abortion clinic, the Women’s Med Center of Dayton.
ENLC has a history of questionable practices. Rewire.News has reported on the organization receiving federal and state funding while running a string of fake clinics. It has faced criticism for its abstinence-only sex education curriculum as well.
The Campaign for Accountability points out that such practices siphon off critical nonprofit funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program while deceiving health-care consumers with misleading marketing materials, websites, grant applications, and the strategic location of their offices. The organization calls on DeWine, a Republican, to investigate the two fake clinics.
Stevens said it’s hard to know how DeWine will respond, but given his stance on how government money should be spent, “this is something he should look into” regardless of his opposition to abortion rights.
DeWine had not responded to the complaint as of Tuesday afternoon; his office did not respond to emails for comment.
“Ohio holds used car dealers to a higher standard of honesty than these so-called health clinics,” Stevens said in a statement. “Pregnant women are no different from any other consumers—they deserve truthful and reliable information. Attorney General DeWine should step in and stop this deceitful behavior.”