I couldn’t see it at first. I had just walked into the Centro Tepeyac Women’s Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, north of Washington, DC. It was late January, and I had come to see for myself the sign that was causing so much political and legal wrangling.
In February 2010, the Council for Montgomery County, Maryland, passed a law directing “limited service pregnancy resource centers” like Tepeyac to post at least one sign in a conspicuous spot in their waiting rooms or face fines of as much as $750 a day. The signs were supposed to inform women that the pregnancy center they had just entered was not a real medical clinic and that the county advised them to seek health services elsewhere.
In May, Tepeyac, a Catholic nonprofit, sued Montgomery County over the law, arguing that it violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. “The government cannot create special speech rules just because people want to talk about pregnancy choices,” Mark Rienzi, Tepeyac’s lead counsel and a law professor at Catholic University, told the Washington Times. “And it certainly cannot target pro-life speakers for special sign requirements and fines while leaving speech by abortion clinics entirely unregulated. This new regulation violates every core principle of free speech law.”
After speaking with Tepeyac’s employees for a few minutes, I finally noticed the sign, hidden in plain view on a waiting room wall. It was an 8.5” x 12” sheet of paper with 12-point font addressed “To all participants.” It announced, in English and Spanish, “Centro Tepeyac is not a medical facility. We don’t have doctors or licensed medical staff in the center. Montgomery County strongly suggests that any pregnant women in the county receives [sic] appropriate medical care early in the pregnancy. Thank you.”
Tepeyac’s staff said they didn’t think the sign had dissuaded anyone from seeking their services. Still, it has had some impact. “I think emotionally, even psychologically, it has affected us,” Mariana Vera, Tepeyac’s executive director, told CWR. “Come on, are you telling us we are not good at what we do because we are not doctors? We see clearly that these women come here for more than just a pregnancy test. They come here for support.”
Pregnancy resource centers (PRCs)— also known as crisis pregnancy centers— have been fending off legal and rhetorical attacks for decades. But disclosure laws like the one in Montgomery County are only a hint of what’s to come in the abortion industry’s escalating campaign against the pro-life centers.
PRCs provide a broad range of free services—not only pregnancy tests, adoption referrals and, increasingly, sonograms, but also job training, legal help, and material support such as diapers and baby strollers.
Legal attacks on PRCs testify to the success these centers are having in providing women with life-affirming alternatives to abortion. Kristin Hansen, vice president of communications for CareNet, a network of 1,100 PRCs, estimates that its centers provided services to more than one million women between 2003 and 2009. Vera said that in 2010 Tepeyac made contact with approximately 3,000 women, and assisted 59 abortion-minded women who changed their minds and chose life.
The rise of PRCs over the past two decades has coincided with a steep drop in the number of abortions performed in the United States as well as a sharp decline in the number of abortion facilities. According to the Alan Gutt macher Institute, the number of annual abortions has decreased 25 percent, from 1.6 million in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2008. A recent report by Operation Rescue, a pro-life activist organization, found that 1,500 abortion centers have closed since 1991. And a recent Harvard study found that the number of Planned Parenthood affiliates has plummeted, from 163 in 1994 to 91 in 2009.
The “clinic gap” is a major theme in the abortion industry’s campaign against pro-life centers. As NARAL warned in a recent fundraising e-mail, “Four thousand [crisis pregnancy centers] may not sound like a lot. But remember, 87 percent of US counties have no abortion provider. Fake clinics actually outnumber legitimate healthcare clinics that provide abortion care by more than four to one.”
As PRCs have grown in number and infl uence, so have the legal and rhetorical att acks on their legitimacy. The strategy of abortion rights groups is to conduct and publish investigations that purport to show that pro-life centers use deceptive advertising to lure women into fake clinics, lie to them about the services they provide, and give them false information about the risks associated with abortion. The reports are then presented to sympathetic lawmakers who att empt to pass anti- PRC laws.
At least a dozen anti-PRC bills have been considered at the city, county, state, and federal levels. Some bills, like Montgomery County’s, require centers to maintain on staff at least one licensed health care professional or disclose that the center is not a health care facility and that patrons should seek services elsewhere.
Other bills seek to compel PRCs to announce that they are not abortion facilities, while still others att empt to limit the type of information women receive about the health effects of abortion to medical information approved by the American Medical Association.
Over the past two years, four local governments have passed laws requiring PRCs to post signs about the nature of their services. Three states have passed laws imposing ultrasound licensing requirements or purchasing restrictions.
The Stop Deceptive Advertising in Women’s Services Act is a federal bill that would call on the Federal Trade Commission to develop advertising rules for PRCs. The legislation has died in committ ee in the last few Congresses and is unlikely to get traction in the current, more pro-life Congress.
PRCs are fighting back against the notion that they are involved in some sort of bait-and-switch to trick abortion- seeking women into entering their centers. In addition to the Montgomery County lawsuit, the Archdiocese of Baltimore filed a federal lawsuit last March against an anti-PRC ordinance in Baltimore City. Among other arguments, the suit contends that the city’s law requires pregnancy centers to state falsely that they do not provide birth control services. The suit argues that abstinence education and NFP are both “medically recognized means of birth control.”
In late January, a federal judge upheld the suit, ruling that the “ordinance violates the Freedom of Speech Clause of Article I of the Constitution of the United States and is unenforceable.”
“Whether a provider of pregnancyrelated services is ‘pro-life’ or ‘prochoice,’ it is for the provider—not the Government—to decide when and how to discuss abortion and birth control methods,” the judge added. “The Government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, require a ‘prolife’ pregnancy-related service center to post a sign as would be required by the ordinance.”
Mark Rienzi, who was the plaintiff s’ counsel in the Baltimore lawsuit, told CWR that he is very pleased by the Baltimore decision and that he hopes “legislators in other jurisdictions will see that such laws are an unconstitutional waste of taxpayer time and money.”
It is reasonable to assume that some women might be confused about the services PRCs offer. A common advertising term like “free abortion alternatives” could be interpreted to mean that the center provides a variety of types of abortions free of charge. That confusion seems especially plausible for the young, less-educated, and non-native- English speaking women who statistics show are at highest risk of having unplanned pregnancies.
But most women visit PRCs knowing what to expect. Gail Tierney, who heads the Rockville Pregnancy Center in Montgomery County, MD, told CWR, “I think a few [women believe we perform abortions] but most do not… because the majority of our clients come from word-of-mouth referrals and they know what we do.”
Tepeyac’s Jalannia Sutt on said that some women enter the clinic expecting to see a doctor. But, she said, “it has always been part of our policy to disclose that we are not doctors during the initial counseling, even before the lawsuit.”
Virginia Cline, public relations director at Heartbeat International, which provides education, services, and training to more than 900 PRCs, told CWR, “Our pregnancy centers have no problem saying that we do not provide or refer for abortions and that we do not offer abortifacients. All of our centers are as up-front as possible at the intake level. When the woman comes in, they are given a form. Usually across the top of that it says so.”
Hansen said CareNet’s clinics employ similar practices because “part of who we are is treating women with integrity and respect and being forthright.”
“On the other hand,” she said, “we don’t want the government or abortion industry dictating how we can advertise.”
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