Abortion rights supporters find new target: crisis pregnancy centers
Updated to note the Alliance Defense Fund has filed a lawsuit.
NEW YORK (BP)--After years of staying mostly out of the spotlight, pro-life crisis pregnancy centers are increasingly coming under political attack in cities nationwide where some legislators and mayors are demanding the centers explicitly declare -- in exterior signs and even in ads -- that they do not perform abortions.
Such legislation, pro-lifers say, is not only unconstitutional but also could lead to an uptick in abortions because some women -- who otherwise would be open to hearing about alternatives to abortion -- will be deterred from even entering the building.
The latest city is New York, which has approved a law requiring crisis pregnancy centers to post signs at the entrance and in the waiting room stating they do not perform abortions or provide abortion referrals. If the center does not have a licensed medical provider on staff, that information, too, must be posted on the signs. Although other cities have passed similar laws, New York's law goes a step further by requiring the information also be disclosed in advertisements and over the phone to people who call the centers.
Crisis pregnancy centers are needed, supporters say, because Planned Parenthood -- the nation's largest abortion provider -- is biased in its counseling and has a financial interest in guiding women to abortions. In 2009, Planned Parenthood performed 340 abortions for every one adoption referral it made, its own data shows.
The pro-life centers often provide such free services as pregnancy tests, ultrasound exams, prenatal care, childbirth classes, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, post-abortion counseling and material assistance. Abortion clinics typically do not provide many of these services.
The ultrasounds -- which show a woman her unborn baby in detail -- have been particularly helpful in deterring abortions.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the law March 16, saying it's needed to make sure women are "fully informed."
Matt Bowman, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, told Baptist Press that pro-choicers want to "shut down the real help and hope that pregnancy centers offer women." ADF, a pro-life legal group, filed a suit against New York March 18.
"There's not any question that crisis pregnancy centers are being targeted," Bowman told Baptist Press. "You can read the pamphlets from the abortion movement targeting them. It's not hidden. I think these attacks on pregnancy centers are an attempt to distract from the growing national scandals in the abortion industry and to give women fewer choices when they experience an unexpected pregnancy."
For pro-lifers, the good news is that courts -- so far -- are mostly siding with them. In January, a federal judge struck down a Baltimore, Md., law that required crisis pregnancy centers to post exterior signs stating they do not provide abortions or make referrals for abortions. In ruling that the law violates the First Amendment's free speech clause, the judge, Marvin Garbis, wrote that "it is for the provider -- not the Government -- to decide when and how to discuss abortion and birth-control methods." Austin, Texas, also has a similar law to Baltimore's.
Pro-lifers also won a partial victory March 14 when a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against a portion of a Montgomery County, Md., law that requires crisis pregnancy centers to post a sign in the waiting room stating the county "encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider." The law also requires a sign in the waiting room to state that the center "does not have a licensed medical professional on staff." Judge Deborah Chasanow's injunction allowed that latter portion of the law to remain but she said she would consider the matter further as the case proceeds.
Planned Parenthood claims on its website that crisis pregnancy centers have a history of "giving women wrong, biased information to scare them into not having abortions." NARAL Pro-Choice America -- a leading abortion rights group -- calls the centers a "growing threat to women's health" and says the centers will "do anything to scare a woman away from choosing legal abortion."
CeCe Heil, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, testified in person against the New York law. ACLJ, too, is expected to file suit against the law.
"As an attorney, I don't have to have a sign on my door that says I don't do balloon characters. There's no other situation in the world where in any kind of business you have to say what you don't provide," Heil said during a panel discussion at the National Religious Broadcasters meeting in February.
The laws, Heil says, are "compelled speech" passed by legislators who "want to control speech with which they disagree."
Even if some centers are advertising falsely, Heil said, new laws are not needed because there already are laws against false advertising.
Said Bowman, of the Alliance Defense Fund, "You've got political allies of the abortion industry being explicitly lobbied by abortionists and abortion-rights organizations to go after those 'mean' pro-life pregnancy centers, and they pass a law and only pro-life pregnancy centers are affected."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.