You Must Abort or We'll Take You to Court

Not aborting fetuses will soon be a crime in San Francisco.

At least that's what the city government is pushing for in its bizarre new attack on pregnancy counseling centers.

Actually, "bizarre" is too mild a word to describe San Francisco's latest outburst; even from my pro-choice perspective, the city's attempt to essentially banish any counseling center which doesn't encourage or perform abortions is simply beyond belief.

Yesterday, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Supervisor Malia Cohen acting on behalf of the municipal government launched a "coordinated attack" on pregnancy counseling centers that didn't provide or advocate for abortions:

San Francisco leaders are launching a coordinated attack against what they call "one of the most serious threats to reproductive rights today" — so-called crisis pregnancy centers that advertise as though they provide abortions, but counsel against them.

In a joint press conference with Supervisor Malia Cohen, City Attorney Dennis Herrera said the "right-wing, politically motivated centers" use false advertisements to target vulnerable populations and can cost women valuable time as they decide whether or not to end a pregnancy.

"Women's reproductive rights are under assault," Herrera said.

The two officials both took action against the centers Tuesday: Cohen introduced legislation that would prohibit centers from making misleading statements about the services they provide, while Herrera took the first step toward legal action against a center he accused of doing just that.

...

Cohen's bill, which was co-sponsored by supervisors David Chiu, Jane Kim and Scott Wiener, would give centers that use misleading advertisements 10 days to correct the problem. After that, the organizations would either be fined or given a court order requiring them to comply.

Also on Tuesday, Herrera sent a letter to First Resort, a San Francisco center whose advertising he described as "particularly egregious."

First Resort's sponsored advertisement appears in the results of a Google search for the terms "abortion" and "San Francisco".

When women search for terms like "abortion" and "San Francisco," a Google ad sponsored by First Resort appears, even though the organization does not provide abortions or referrals for them, Herrera said.

The letter asks First Resort to change its advertisements and website by the end of August to clarify that it does not provide abortion services.

Hold on just a moment. Everybody freeze. What exactly is "First Resort" accused of doing wrong? Buying a Google ad? Let's look at the specifics.

If you scour First Resort's Web site, nowhere do they claim that they provide abortions, or even advocate for abortions. In fact, quite the opposite: they use various code words like "values" and "adoption" which make it pretty clear they're coming from a "keep the baby" perspective in their counseling.

So what's the problem? San Francisco's municipal government apparently had a conniption fit over the placement of First Resort's Google ad. In particular, if you Google the words "abortion" and "San Francisco," the very top result is a listing for the First Resort clinic:

Does the ad itself say that First Resort provides abortions? No. Does it even mention abortions? No. It just says "First Resort - Unplanned Pregnancy." Nothing more. But gosh darn it, the ad pops up if someone does a Google search!

Now, I'm not enough of an expert on Google Ads to know how the placement works. Does First Resort get a good placement simply because of an automated relevancy algorithm built into the Google search engine? Or did First Resort give Google money specifically so that they would get high placement in various search term combinations?

I don't know. And I'm pretty certain that the S.F. City Attorney doesn't know either. Because it's easy to target a nonprofit counseling center, but woe unto any entity as small as a city which tries to sue the behemoth Google, which probably has more lawyers on staff than all the pregnancy counseling centers in the world combined. (Only sovereign nations have the resources to sue Google, as is happening now in various privacy lawsuits.)

If First Resort's Google Search listing had come in, say, 17th, behind various abortion mills, the city of San Francisco would have just shrugged it off and not gone to all this trouble. But those damn non-aborters somehow managed to finagle the top result for certain search terms! Take them to court!

This could be a legal first. Has any other business or organization ever been sued over their Google search ranking? Because that's what this is all about. Remember that neither First Resort's Web site nor the ads linking to their Web site make any claims about providing abortions. No, the only basis for a "false advertising claim" against them is not the content of their advertising, but the placement of it. But it's not even clear if the company has any control over the placement of their ads -- for that info, we'd have to sue Google, which is simply unfeasible.

So, based on basically no evidence whatsoever, the city of San Francisco is planning to sue a counseling center for false advertising, even though their advertisements are not false.

And in the press conference proudly announcing this, the City Attorney openly admits that it's politically motivated, that he's going after the centers because he defines them as "right-wing." But seriously, have you ever looked at the ads for the other kinds of pregnancy counseling centers, the kinds of places where if you walk in, the only advice they ever give you is abort abort abort?

Never do they put up big neon signs saying "Fetuses aborted here." Instead, they have innocuous (some would say "deceptive") names like "community health center" or "reproductive services clinic" and so on. In fact, if you flip the narrative, and do a Google search for "pregnant" and "San Francisco," the top result is a hospital that does provide abortions.

How is that any less deceptive, and any less of an inappropriate placement?

And why don't the other abortion clinics solve the problem by themselves buying a Google ad which guarantees them top placement for the search terms of their choosing? Are we to sue First Resort simply because they made a more effective ad-buy than their hapless competition?

You may be wondering: If I myself am "pro-choice," then why do I care about this issue?

Because the key word here is "choice." I'm not pro-abortion; I'm pro-choice. There's a crucial difference. I've discussed my personal stance on this in previous posts, and don't want to get sidetracked; my take on the abortion issue is not relevant anyway. But with this lawsuit, San Francisco has crossed the line from pro-choice to being overtly pro-abortion. How else would you describe legally harassing any counseling centers which fail to encourage their clients to abort their babies?

Here is the nightmare scenario that San Francisco is trying to prevent: A woman gets pregnant, isn't sure whether or not she wants to keep the baby, does a Google search and blindly clicks on the top link simply because it's at the top, ignores all the clues on the company's Web site ("values," etc.), goes in for an appointment -- and (horrors!) the counselor she meets with convinces her to keep the baby, or even give it up for adoption, rather than "terminating" it.

It's quite obvious that the city simply wishes these kinds of "values-based" counseling centers didn't exist at all; but lacking any other way to legally boot them out of town, they latched onto the flimsy "false advertising" charge, simply as a method to drive them away (or underground) with nuisance lawsuits.

Remember, no one is accusing First Resort or the other centers of forcing anyone to not have an abortion. No, their only crime is to have "values"-based conversations with pregnant women.

But First Resort is not about to cave. In KTVU's article about the press conference, First Resort throws down the gauntlet:

First Resort CEO Shari Plunkett released a statement Tuesday's afternoon responding to Herrera and Cohen's announcement earlier.

"First Resort rejects in the strongest possible terms any representation that our advertising misleads women," Plunkett said.

"We treat women with dignity and respect and respect their right to choose. We welcome both Supervisor Cohen and City Attorney Herrera to tour our facilities and educate themselves about the services we provide," she said.

Plunkett called the clinic a "model" and said she was confident it complies with local, state and federal laws.

"We look forward to a robust discussion about the appropriateness of this legislation and urge them not to test the constitutional boundaries of free speech," Plunkett said.

Bring it!

Do you think San Francisco's threatened lawsuit against First Resort will succeed -- and if it does, will it survive a constitutionality challenge?

Do you have any additional evidence that First Resort (or any other S.F. pregnancy center) engages in illegal "false advertising"?

Are the innocuous listings and advertisements for actual abortion clinics just as "deceptive" and just as susceptible to claims of false advertising?

Is "pro-choice" always just a euphemism for pro-abortion, or is there a middle ground?

UPDATE:

NewsBusters points out that the pro-abortion group NARAL helped to draft the new SF law about false advertising at clinics -- so the odds of it being enforced equally on both sides of the aisle are basically nil.