New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
Anti-abortion pregnancy center challenges new law
The law, adopted this year, aims to prevent centers from engaging in ‘deceptive advertising practices’
An anti-abortion, faith-based pregnancy care center in New London is the first to challenge a new state law banning “deceptive advertising practices” by crisis pregnancy centers, arguing it violates its First Amendment rights.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit, has brought the federal lawsuit on behalf of Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center of Southeastern Connecticut.
At issue in the case is how Care Net and other pregnancy centers that do not perform or advise women about abortions may advertise. The law, adopted by the General Assembly this year and signed by Gov. Ned Lamont, aims to prevent clinics or pregnancy counseling centers from luring clients who are seeking a full range of options and services.
“The center is not able to operate as it wants because the
attorney general has said some of the communications that Care Net has long used in its outreach are now illegal under law,” Denise Harle, senior counsel for ADF, said in an interview.
State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, who has sued the state over coronavirus rules, is the local attorney representing the plaintiff. He referred questions on the lawsuit Thursday to Harle.
The law, and the federal lawsuit, bring the national battle over reproductive rights to the fore in Connecticut at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court might be poised to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that prevents states from outlawing abortions
The group is seeking a court order to block the law and declare it unconstitutional, arguing it “bans Care Net from communicating freely with the individuals it serves and with those it wishes to serve, unless Care Net agrees to provide abortions, dispense abortifacient drugs, or offer referrals for abortions or abortifacient drug.”
Violations carry civil penalties ranging from $50 to $500 and the state is entitled to “reasonable” attorneys’ fees, which Harle said “certainly could be crippling and could cause them to shut their doors.”
A court can also order centers that violate the law to pay for and disseminate “appropriate corrective advertising.”
The law is a “clear example of opposing a certain viewpoint and the government trying to use its to silence certain voices it doesn’t like,” Harle said.
Supporters of the law, including Connecticut Attorney General William
Tong, who is named as the defendant in the complaint, have characterized it as truthin-advertising legislation.
In testimony in support of the bill earlier this year, Tong said some of these pregnancy centers have “misled pregnant women into the false belief that they offer abortion services, emergency contraception, and unbiased counseling.”
Considering that the state provides funding for health care services for many women, Tong testified “if women who choose to terminate a pregnancy are delayed by deceptive advertising, the cost of providing more invasive, more dangerous, and more expensive options may fall upon the State.”
Some centers “openly acknowledge” that they do not provide abortions or emergency contraception, and that they believe abortion is wrong, Tong said.
“While I disagree with that belief, I respect and will protect
the First Amendment right to express it,” he said.
Deceptive or clear?
Outside Care Net’s small, off-white, stucco building in a residential neighborhood of New London, a sign advertises free and confidential pregnancy testing and testing for sexually transmitted infections. Another sign reads “Care Net When Your Right to Choose Includes More Than One Option.”
Lisa Maloney, executive director of the center, who greeted a reporter Thursday afternoon in an empty waiting room, deferred comment to the center’s lawyers.
Maloney, in testimony opposing the law, which was proposed for several years in the General Assembly before passing this legislative session, said the center does not deceive clients.
“At Care Net we are upfront that we are a faith-based center and we do not provide abortions and each client must sign our request for services that states as such,” she said.
On its website, Care Net has a tab labeled “abortion info” and offers information on the abortion pill and surgical abortions. At the top of the page on surgical abortions, the website says: “Come see us for a free abortion information consultation and pregnancy confirmation appointment.”
At the bottom of the page, it offers this disclaimer: “We provide education on abortion and pregnancy options. We do not refer for or perform abortions or provide emergency contraceptives.”
It’s unclear how many similar clinics or centers there are in Connecticut. Harle, the lawyer for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said the group has been contacted by “a lot of centers” in Connecticut that “worry they don’t have clarity” on what constitutes deceptive advertising.
‘It’s indefensible to lie’
Liz Gustafson, state director at NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, pushed back on the group’s First Amendment argument.
“There is no First Amendment right to lie or deceive consumers about your services, and the State of Connecticut has the responsibility to protect its residents from deception,” Gustafson said in a statement Thursday. “This law does not regulate, limit, or have any impact on the advocacy or the day-to-day operations that these centers engage in — it simply does not reach beyond false, deceptive, or misleading advertising.”
The lawsuit charges that the state already has the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act to regulate unfair and deceptive advertising — proving that this new law is designed to discriminate against centers that do not offer abortion services.
Tong, however, said in his testimony that the law fills possible gaps in the unfair trade practices act, known as CUTPA.
Depending on what services it offers, a pregnancy center “may fall outside of CUTPA regulation,” he said, adding the Massachusetts Supreme Court declined to enforce that state's unfair and deceptive practices act against a limited services pregnancy center there.
In a written statement Thursday, Tong said he’s prepared to defend the law in court.
“Women need accurate and timely information about their reproductive health choices,” he said. “It’s indefensible to lie to women at a vulnerable time. I testified in support of Connecticut’s law and am fully prepared to defend it in court.”
The law applies to public statements made in advertisements, print publications and online among other forums by so-called limited services pregnancy centers that “do not directly provide, or provide referrals for, abortions or emergency contraception.”
Harle, the lawyer, said, “If simply not mentioning abortion is considered deceptive, that’s a really unfair position.”