Image credit: James McNellis / Wikimedia Commons

The shift in momentum towards the anti-abortion forces has been swift and destabilizing. Furthermore, our political culture can encourage us to focus on political retaliation and political struggle on the macro-level. Rebalancing the Supreme Court through impeachment and court-packing, or winning a filibuster-proof Senate, are certainly ways of addressing the collapse of civil rights, but are they the most desirable response? Are they possible within a reasonable timeframe? Do we want a Supreme Court that can be changed out and manipulated because the party in power wants a rubber stamp on its policies?

As important is the sense of despair many liberals and progressives feel when we throw our collective weight behind gambits and activism that are unlikely to yield tangible success.

But here’s another idea. What if we all looked at how we could support reproductive rights in our own communities—and not just support, but defend our neighbors against anti-choice institution building?

For example, is there an establishment in your community pretending to offer medical services to pregnant women who lack resources, otherwise known as a “crisis pregnancy center” (CPC) or “pregnancy resource center”? Earlier this summer, I published an interview with Jennifer Holland, a historian of the anti-abortion movement, who pointed out that these volunteer-run Christian organizations are crucial institutions of anti-abortion activism. Luring women in (no, they are not serving trans people or men/people who can become pregnant, for reasons that will shortly become obvious) with the promise of medical care, CPCs offer a few medicalized procedures—a pregnancy test and perhaps an ultrasound—and focus on persuading someone who wouldn’t be there if she could afford to have a child to carry the pregnancy to term. The ultrasound is generally used, not as a diagnostic tool, but as a visual aid to personalize the woman’s relationship with her “baby.”

CPCs are everywhere. I recently learned that in my own state, Massachusetts, there are ten clinics statewide that offer full reproductive health services, including abortion counseling and abortion, and 30 crisis pregnancy centers that deliver little or no medical care and minimal forms of material support if a woman agrees to carry the pregnancy to term. And we need to say woman, because that support—mentoring, and baby supplies once a child is born—are predicated on functioning in a Christian environment that is unfriendly (to say the least) to LGBTQ+ identities.

One Massachusetts CPC is in Easthampton, only a few miles down the road from my home in Northampton. It’s called Bethlehem House, Inc. and bills itself as a “pregnancy care center.” But what care do they offer? If you go through their webpage, it’s hard to tell. Advertising itself as a non-profit, you have to scroll to the bottom of Bethlehem House’s website to learn that it is supported by the Diocese of Springfield, and the reassurance that we can all be “Transformed in Christ.” On the left are pictures of a fetus and a baby underneath the caption: “Did you know,” it gushes, “life begins at the moment of Conception!”

You could search the site in vain for any indication that Bethlehem House has medical services or will pay for medical services, although at the hearing, a representative claimed that the facility does offer actual health care from licensed practitioners. Instead, the only support explicitly listed on the site—“if you qualify”—is baby supplies. A woman gets them until the child is 18 months old, and then it stops, somewhere between 16 and 20 years short of that baby becoming a self-supporting, working person.

And what does it mean for a client to qualify? Again, unclear. But for many CPCs, it means embracing the religious vision of the CPC, as well as taking part in classes to earn credits (called “mommy dollars”) that can be exchanged for baby supplies. The classes also include religious indoctrination, and are a recruiting ground for new anti-abortion activists.

In any case, Easthampton and Northampton decided to address the issues attendant to CPCs by proposing local ordinances that require them to tell the truth about what they do and do not provide to their clients. On Wednesday, July 6, the Easthampton City Council held a public comment hearing that was attended by over 100 activists on both sides, one of whom (an anti-abortion activist) had to be physically removed from the hearing.

As Danielle O’Banion, an Easthampton resident, who does provide reproductive health services in her role as a family physician, explained:

so-called crisis pregnancy centers lack employees with medical training or licensure. She said many provide false or misleading information such as that abortions increase the risk of breast cancer and will make it difficult to become pregnant. She urged the council to vote in favor of the ordinance.

“This is only about protecting the public from deceptive practices,” O’Banion said.

Anti-abortion proponents framed CPC action as about free speech: as one complained, “I feel that there shouldn’t be any laws looking at this as deceptive marketing just because they don’t offer a full-service scope of pregnancy services.” Which is a lot like saying you could open a business and call it a car dealership, even if some of the vehicles were missing, you know, brakes and transmissions.

But whether Bethlehem House offers medical services or not, it doesn’t offer full information about how the risks of pregnancy, and the specific risks any one client may encounter. This is a baseline for good medical care.

Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, who is running for Governor (and will be one of the clear political beneficiaries of the Dobbs decision in November) had issued an advisory hours earlier. According to Emily Thurlow at the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Healey “warned patients about crisis pregnancy centers not offering reproductive care. She said that most crisis pregnancy centers are not licensed medical facilities staffed by licensed doctors or nurses. Although some do offer ultrasounds, she said, they are often performed by unlicensed personnel, which lead to inaccurate or misleading results about a pregnancy.”

And here’s what such ordinances would require: not that places like Bethlehem House shut down, but that they stop recruiting clients through deception. A second requirement would be that, if a location offers some medical advice, it offers all relevant medical advice. They don’t have to do abortions, or refer clients for abortions. They just have to be honest.

This seems like a relatively straightforward proposition that is not only in accordance with medical ethics and consumer protection law, but with religious ethics. I’m thinking of the Ninth Commandment, which is, if you know your Bible, “Thou shalt not lie.” And lying, in case you were wondering, is not covered by the First Amendment.

The City of Northampton, although it does not currently have a CPC within city limits, is considering a similar ordinance, and your town could, too. Think about it.

Because defending ourselves and our neighbors from the Supreme Court majority begins at home.

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay first appeared on her Substack, Political Junkie.