State lawmaker questions 'pregnancy crisis centers'
About two months after the state attorney general publicly questioned methods used at abortion clinics, a state lawmaker has seemingly turned the tables and posed similar inquiries to "pregnancy crisis centers," which tend to oppose the practice.
Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, sent letters to 37 crisis centers Friday. He said he wants to know what goes on at the centers and if they are misleading women about their services.
"I am deeply concerned that women may be deceived by a (center's) name, advertising and location into believing that it offers comprehensive reproductive care, including contraception and abortion, or at the very least, referrals for those services," Skinner wrote.
The centers tend to actively advocate against abortions, typically offering baby clothing, information about adoptions and other similar services.
Skinner said he supports anyone's right to advocate against abortion.
"They should be able to (advocate), but what they can't do is tell people that they're providing medical services when they're not," Skinner said.
Skinner said the information he receives could lead to legislative action.
The letters ask for detailed information about services. Questions include whether the centers have names that are similar to abortion providers, if the centers have policies "to ensure that answers are not deceptive or misleading," and what information centers provide women who ask about abortion services.
Skinner's letters are the latest in a public abortion debate that has grown more heated in recent weeks.
In June, Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey sent questionnaires to the state's two elective abortion clinics. The state Department of Health and Human Resources doesn't license or inspect abortion clinics; Morrisey said clinics' answers would help him evaluate whether more regulations are needed.
The clinics, both located in Charleston, responded to Morrisey with brief responses. Both said they understand and abide by the law.
Some of the questions posed in Skinner's letters to the Crisis Pregnancy Centers are nearly identical to those sent by Morrisey to the clinics that perform abortions.
The first question in both letters is identical: how often are the centers or abortion clinics "inspected by the State or a self-regulatory body?"
They both also ask about "compliance" plans at the respective centers.
"I have exactly the same legal authority to ask these questions as the attorney general," Skinner said.
The Jefferson County attorney said he's considered asking questions about the centers for some time.
"He's sending questions to centers who have licensed medical providers. They're licensed," Skinner said. "I'm sending letters to entities that I don't know if they have any license, or anyone whose actually been trained by medical personnel on giving services to women.
"I would like to know whether these centers are actually telling women all of their medical choices."
In his letter, Skinner specifically mentions a center in Charleston that recently moved in next door to one of the state's two abortion providers. The center is named Woman's Choice, and calls itself a pregnancy resource center. The clinic is named the Women's Health Center of West Virginia.
Matt Jacob, Woman's Choice spokesman, said the center is upfront with women - it tells them it doesn't offer abortions and it doesn't claim to offer medical services.
"It's not as if we try to trap women into thinking this is an abortion clinic," Jacobs said Monday in a phone interview.
When Woman's Choice opened, Jacob told the Charleston Gazette the move was needed because the building was bigger, but that he also thought the new location could be "beneficial" because abortion seekers would have to walk by.
Monday, Jacob said there's "a lot more" traffic heading into Woman's Choice at the new location. When asked if the increase in people going to Woman's Choice had anything to do with its location, Jacob said, "it's possible."
Women have "occasionally" gone into Woman's Choice seeking an abortion, Jacob said. When that happens, he said someone tells them it isn't an abortion clinic.
Right now Woman's Choice offers pregnancy tests but no medical procedures. There are three volunteers who work there. Although one is a nurse, Jacob said that person doesn't offer medical counseling.
Jacob said later in an emailed statement he had received Skinner's letter. He said Woman's Choice would answer within 30 days as Skinner requested.
Shortly after sending letters to the clinics, Morrisey announced he would seek comment from anyone about abortion regulations in the state.
The Family Policy Council of West Virginia, an evangelical nonprofit opposed to abortions, has repeatedly thanked Morrisey for his work. Its leader, attorney Jeremiah Dys, is representing a woman in a legal case against the Women's Health Center.
Dys recently announced the launch of the "Illuminate Campaign," what he and supporters call an effort to look at abortion clinics in the state. Last week the council sent a lengthy letter detailing its concerns, as a part of Morrisey's call for comments.
Monday, Dys said he was "grateful" Skinner was interested in the crisis centers.
"We hope the pregnancy care centers of West Virginia will carefully review his questions and respond respectfully within the time period he has set out," Dys said in a prepared statement. "And, we hope that he will join us as we continue working toward ensuring the health and safety of the women of this state."
Margaret Chapman Pomponio, leader of WV Free, said Dys and Morrisey's claim they are looking out for women's health is disingenuous. WV Free advocates for women's health issues, including access to abortions.
Pomponio said Monday she was aware of Skinner's letters.
"That irony is not lost on us," Pomponio said. "He's trying to make a point that perhaps the attorney general's time would be better spent focused on uncovering the deceptive practices of these centers rather than targeting real women's health providers."
She has repeatedly said the so-called crisis centers mislead women.
"They co-opt women in crisis situations with deceptive language and signs," Pomponio said. "The goal, it seems, is that a woman feels safe seeking reproductive health care there, when in actuality those providing the so-called service are trying to dissuade them (from an abortion)."
On behalf of WV Free, Pomponio recently sent her own letter to Morrisey questioning why he is focused so intently on the clinics.
She said Monday he is "obsessed" with abortions.
WV Free has scheduled a rally at the Capitol today to promote women's health and dispel what they consider to be lies from Dys and Morrisey. The noon event, called the "Stand With West Virginia Women" rally, will take place in the lower rotunda.
Friday was the last day to submit comments to Morrisey's office about abortions. Monday, Morrisey spokeswoman Beth Ryan said the comments wouldn't be discussed until they had been reviewed.
The office has never said how it will use the comments or if they would be made public.