Pull up a crisis pregnancy center’s website and you might find an offer for a “free abortion consultation” or a rundown of the “facts” about the “abortion pill.”
But these centers are not what they appear.
They aren’t abortion clinics or medical centers. They are an arm of the anti-abortion movement, designed to dissuade women from ending their pregnancies. And they use ultrasound images, free baby clothes — and in some cases, deceptive messaging — to achieve their ends. More than 30 such centers operate in Massachusetts, according to one advocacy group.
The misleading advertisements have been a source of concern for decades. But the worry has intensified since June, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and returned the question of abortion rights to the states.
With women in conservative parts of the country scrambling across state lines and into unfamiliar territory in search of care, the opportunity for manipulation has grown.
Massachusetts legislators can do their part to curb the manipulation by passing a state law barring deceptive advertising by crisis pregnancy centers.
The City of Somerville already has a local ordinance in place. And several other left-leaning municipalities are considering similar measures. But a patchwork approach won’t provide the protection that Massachusetts women — and patients visiting from other states — require.
A statewide law would not be the first of its kind. Last year, Connecticut lawmakers passed their own ban on deceptive advertising.
“Put simply, if you sell Subarus, don’t claim it’s a Mercedes-Benz,” Representative Christine Palm, a Chester Democrat, said at the time. “If you’re a bakery, don’t pretend that you sell fruit just because it’s another food item. If you’re a dentist, you’re not an epidemiologist, even though you’re in the medical field. And if you provide adoption counseling and you discourage people from getting abortions, don’t imply, suggest, or insinuate that you do otherwise.”
A conservative advocacy group has sued to block the law on behalf of a New London crisis pregnancy center, arguing that it violates the center’s First Amendment right “to operate, publish, speak, and not speak, in accordance with its religious beliefs.”
But Connecticut lawmakers say the measure is based on a San Francisco ordinance that has already passed constitutional muster. In 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the ordinance “merely seeks to prevent [crisis pregnancy centers] from harming women through false or misleading speech about their services and in no way restricts those entities from expressing their views about abortion to the public or their clients.”
The centers, as the court suggests, have every right to proselytize against abortion. They just don’t have a right to deceive women.
To be fair, there are plenty of crisis pregnancy centers that are quite open about their views on abortion. These centers should not — and would not — be affected by a statewide ban on deceptive advertising.
And even those that do engage in misleading messaging should have a few days to take it down before facing a fine or other enforcement. The Connecticut law allows for just that.
The aim is not to infringe on the constitutional liberties of abortion opponents but to guard against manipulation.
There is a long legal tradition in this country, on the state and federal levels, of protecting consumers against deceptive advertising.
And in a moment of deep uncertainty for so many American women, they deserve the same protection.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.