Rule on preg­nancy cen­ter dis­claimers struck down

City said law re­quired fa­cil­i­ties to an­nounce they did not pro­vide abor­tions

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Ian Dun­can idun­can@balt­ twit­­can

Bal­ti­more of­fi­cials can­not use a 2009 city law to force a Chris­tian preg­nancy cen­ter to post a dis­claimer stat­ing that it won’t re­fer women for abor­tions, a fed­eral judge ruled this week.

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Marvin J. Gar­bis ruled that en­forc­ing the or­di­nance would vi­o­late the free-speech rights of the Cen­ter for Preg­nancy Con­cerns, but he de­clined to find that the law it­self was un­con­sti­tu­tional.

“The Dis­claimer as man­dated forces preg­nancy cen­ters to be­gin their con­ver­sa­tions with a stark govern­ment dis­claimer, di­vorced from the sup­port of­fered by the Cen­ter, and sug­gest­ing that abor­tion is avail­able else­where and might be con­sid­ered a good op­tion by preg­nant women — a mes­sage that the Cen­ter ex­pressly finds morally of­fen­sive and would not oth­er­wise pro­vide,” Gar­bis wrote in a 54-page rul­ing is­sued Tues­day.

The de­ci­sion comes af­ter a six-year court fight and is the lat­est in a se­ries of sim­i­lar cases around the coun­try. The cases have pit­ted anti-abor­tion ac­tivists and re­li­gious free­dom groups against sev­eral cities and coun­ties and abor­tion rights ac­tivists who say such cen­ters trick preg­nant women with mis­lead­ing ad­ver­tis­ing and pres­sure them not to get abor­tions.

It’s not clear how many such cen­ters are op­er­at­ing na­tion­wide, but es­ti­mates run in the thou­sands, mean­ing they could out­num­ber abor­tion providers.

The Cen­ter for Preg­nancy Con­cerns op­er­ates a fa­cil­ity in the city’s East Bal­ti­more Mid­way neigh­bor­hood as well as three in Bal­ti­more County, and says it serves some 1,200 women a year.

Carol Clews, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s direc­tor, said in a state­ment that the fa­cil­i­ties pro­vide love and sup­port to help women in need.

“That’s work the city should be sup­port­ing, not at­tack­ing,” she said. “I hope that af­ter six years of wasted time and money, the city will re­al­ize that it would ac­tu­ally be harm­ing wom­enby con­tin­u­ing to at­tack our work.”

The city could ask the 4th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals to re­view the case. Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake, said, “The city is cur­rently ex­plor­ing all le­gal options to en­sure that women ob­tain ac­cess to the time-sen­si­tive re­pro­duc­tive health ser­vices they seek.”

Am­ber Banks, a spokes­woman for NARAL Pro-Choice Mary­land, said her or­ga­ni­za­tion will keep bat­tling against the preg­nancy cen­ters, which she said spread false­hoods about the risks and long-term con­se­quences of abor­tion.

“Peo­ple are still be­ing de­ceived by them and are still be­ing harmed by them,” she said. “We are com­mit­ted to con­tin­u­ing to fight to en­sure that peo­ple have ac­cess to ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion.”

Gar­bis wrote that the build­ing the Bal­ti­more cen­ter op­er­ates out of is owned by the Ro­man Catholic Church, but on its web­site the cen­ter says it is not af­fil­i­ated with any par­tic­u­lar de­nom­i­na­tion.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion does not hide its in­ten­tion to in­ter­vene in the cases of women it calls “abor­tion vul­ner­a­ble.”

In an Au­gust 2016 newslet­ter posted on its web­site, the cen­ter’s staff re­counted the case of a teenager they called Jane who came in seek­ing a preg­nancy test. The girl asked about an abor­tion and af­ter the pro­ce­dure was de­scribed to her, she “stopped the coun­selor be­fore she was able to com­plete the ex­pla­na­tion, say­ing; ‘Too hard to hear, I can’t lis­ten!’ ”

“The coun­selor wisely guided the dis­cus­sion to other options,” the post reads.

Even though city of­fi­cials said the law was de­signed to pro­tect women from false ad­ver­tis­ing, Gar­bis wrote that it was drafted so broadly that a cen­ter “that does no ad­ver­tis­ing would none­the­less be swept up in the City’s reg­u­la­tory fer­vor, leav­ing just an­other free speech ca­su­alty.”

Gar­bis wrote that at least in the case of the Cen­ter for Preg­nancy Con­cerns, the city could not prove that any women had been harmed by go­ing there or that the law was writ­ten care­fully enough to pro­tect women from false ad­ver­tis­ing.

When women called seek­ing an abor­tion af­ter see­ing the cen­ter’s ads on lo­cal buses, the cen­ter’s staff had been upfront that they would not re­fer the caller to get one, Gar­bis con­cluded. What’s more, Gar­bis wrote, the cen­ter dis­plays a brochure not­ing that it will not re­fer women for an abor­tion.

“There’s no ev­i­dence that any­one’s harmed by these cen­ters,” said Mark Rienzi, a lawyer who rep­re­sented the Bal­ti­more cen­ter. “These cen­ters help women; they don’t harm women.”

De­spite Gar­bis’ skep­ti­cal and some­times scathing tone to­ward the city’s po­si­tion, he de­clined to strike down the law al­to­gether. In­stead, he ruled based on spe­cific de­tails of the way the Cen­ter for Preg­nancy Con­cerns op­er­ates and wrote that while a sim­i­lar cen­ter in Bal­ti­more might be able to bring a case he did not have enough ev­i­dence to reach a broader con­clu­sion.

Sim­i­lar re­quire­ments else­where have had mixed fates. A fed­eral judge ruled in 2014 against a Montgomery County law that would have re­quired the preg­nancy cen­ters to post signs say­ing they don’t have med­i­cal staff avail­able and that of­fi­cials rec­om­mend preg­nant women see a li­censed med­i­cal provider.

In New York, a fed­eral ap­peals court up­held that kind of lan­guage while rul­ing against dis­claimers no­ti­fy­ing women that cen­ters don’t pro­vide abor­tions. A group of New York cen­ters asked the Supreme Court to take up the case, but it de­clined.

Banks said de­fend­ing the laws can be chal­leng­ing be­cause women who have had bad ex­pe­ri­ences with the cen­ters can be un­will­ing to talk pub­licly.

“It is often a pri­vate topic,” she said.

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