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’

- By Julia Bergman

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.”

 ?? Julia Bergman / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? Care Net Pregnancy
Resource Center in New London, above, is challengin­g a 2021 state law that seeks to bar deceptive advertisin­g by pregnancy counseling centers.
Julia Bergman / Hearst Connecticu­t Media Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center in New London, above, is challengin­g a 2021 state law that seeks to bar deceptive advertisin­g by pregnancy counseling centers.

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