City of Baltimore and Reproductive Rights Group to Appeal Decision on Pregnancy Crisis Centers

Jodi Jacobson

The Center for Reproductive Rights and the City of Baltimore announced on Saturday that they will immediately appeal a court decision involving a legal challenge to a new city ordinance that demands truth in advertising from crisis pregnancy centers in Baltimore. 

The Center for Reproductive Rights and the City of Baltimore announced on Saturday that they will immediately appeal a court decision involving a legal challenge to a new city ordinance that demands truth in advertising from crisis pregnancy centers in Baltimore. 

The decision came in O’Brien v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, a suit that had been filed in March 2010 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland by the Archbishop of Baltimore, one of its parishes and the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc., a crisis pregnancy center. 

They sued to overturn an ordinance passed by the City of Baltimore, the first of its kind in the country, requiring crisis pregnancy centers to post signs in their waiting rooms indicating that they do not provide or make referrals for abortion or comprehensive birth control services. The ordinance protects women from deceptive advertising and ensures that women seeking contraception or abortion are able to get those services promptly. Crisis pregnancy centers–non-medical organizations that counsel women against using abortion and birth control services–often advertise themselves as clinics that provide abortion or family planning in order to lure women to their facilities, only to provide misleading information and sometimes delay or provide erroneous information about teh results of pregnancy tests in an attempt to prevent women from getting early abortions.

As CRR notes, Baltimore passed the ordinance following two reports that documented a pattern of deceptive practices by limited-service pregnancy centers. 

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In 2006, for example, U.S. Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) released a study finding that crisis pregnancy centers often use delay tactics to stall women from getting abortion or birth control services while subjecting them to anti-abortion and anti-contraception propaganda. In addition, they often mislead women, providing false factual information about contraception and the mechanics of an abortion procedure as well as its risks.  Those findings were then confirmed in the 2008 report which specifically looked at the practices of such facilities in Maryland. The City Council also heard testimony from numerous women complaining about deceptive practices used by the centers.

In their suit, the complainants argued that the ordinance violates crisis pregnancy centers’ rights to freedom of speech and religion.  The district court held that the Archbishop of Baltimore and St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Congregation did not have standing to challenge the ordinance. Nonetheless it also ruled that the ordinance violates the First Amendment rights of the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns.

The City of Baltimore and the Center will appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

“We plan to immediately appeal today’s court’s decision and we are confident we will prevail,” said Stephanie Toti, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Baltimore’s ordinance is a common sense measure designed to protect consumers from a long-standing and documented pattern of deceptive practices by crisis pregnancy centers.”

Meanwhile, concern about crisis pregnancy centers is growing. As Amie reported earlier this month, the state of Washington is considering two bills with the potential to change the way “crisis pregnancy centers” are regulated. The Limited Service Pregnancy Center Accountability Act (SB 5274/HB 1366) targets “Limited Service Pregnancy Centers (LSPCs)” (also known as crisis pregnancy centers) for their historically deceitful practices in the state.

News Law and Policy

Oakland Could Outlaw False Advertising by Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Nicole Knight Shine

California already requires CPCs to post information about free or low-cost abortion care or contraception in their facilities. The proposed ordinance would penalize licensed and unlicensed "limited service pregnancy centers" for making untrue or misleading statements in ads, online, and in publications.

Elected leaders in Oakland, California, want to crack down on crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) with a truth-in-advertising ordinance.

A panel of some members of the city council on Tuesday took up the proposed measure during a Life Enrichment Committee meeting, arguing that many of these religiously run centers target pregnant people with deceptive billboards, websites, and search engine results for “abortion.”

California already requires CPCs to post information about free or low-cost abortion care or contraception in their facilities. The proposed ordinance would penalize licensed and unlicensed “limited service pregnancy centers” for making untrue or misleading statements in ads, online, and in publications. The ordinance also applies to statements of omission, meaning the withholding of information. Violators would be given ten days to take corrective action by the city attorney, and could face civil fines from $50 to $500. Penalties also include running new ads to correct deceptive ones.

“Crisis pregnancy centers put their ideological agenda ahead of women’s health,” Oakland Vice Mayor Annie Campbell Washington told those gathered in chambers. “They target what they call ‘abortion-minded women’ with deceptive advertising, implying they offer abortion services or referrals.”

Campbell Washington said the new “consumer protection measure” was necessary because individuals who go to CPCs are “being lied to.”

Baltimore, Maryland, was the first city in the nation to enact a similar truth-in-advertising ordinance, which has been blocked amid a court challenge. In 2011, San Francisco passed a similar ordinance. It prevailed after a protracted court battle, when a district judge said the First Amendment does not protect false and misleading commercial speech.

During public comments, Christina Malin, director of family health services for Alameda County Public Health Department, expressed support for the ordinance, noting that CPCs inflict harm by targeting low-income communities of color in particular. She described receiving a voicemail message from a CPC worker asking for help with an undocumented client with a high-risk pregnancy. Malin never learned what happened to the patient.

Malin also noted that county prenatal clinics had observed a tendency by CPCs to refer their clients to county facilities for medical care once the client reached about 24 weeks of pregnancy, when the individual “can no longer terminate easily” and abortion care, while lawful, is more expensive. These former CPC clients, Malin added, arrive without records of appropriate prenatal medical care, such as lab work.

Campbell Washington noted that CPCs are difficult for clients to vet on their own because a facility will frequently change its name.

Rewire found, for example, the state has licensed the CPC Third Box Pregnancy Clinic to operate at 400 30th Street #401 in Oakland under the legal name First Resort. But online and in Yelp reviews the facility at 400 30th Street #401 is called Support Circle Pregnancy Clinic.

First Resort, as it turns out, is the same religiously run nonprofit that challenged the San Francisco ordinance, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. In its print and online ads in San Francisco, First Resort claimed to offer “abortion information, resources and compassionate support for women facing the crucial decisions that surround unintended pregnancies and are considering abortion,” although it did not refer clients to abortion providers or provide abortion care.

On Tuesday, Amy Everitt, state director of the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice California, showed those gathered in chambers how a Google search for “Oakland” and “abortion” produced results with three clinics, two of which were CPCs. She noted that a 2015 NARAL investigation found that 91 percent of CPCs in the report dispensed false information.

Google has said it would correct its inaccurate search results.

The measure now heads to the full Oakland City Council after unanimously clearing the Life Enrichment Committee.

The ordinance comes amid reports in Sacramento and Los Angeles of CPCs flouting the new state law requiring pregnancy-related centers, including CPCs, to post a brief notice about access to free and low-cost abortion care and contraception.

The Los Angeles City Attorney recently announced that his office would begin cracking down on violators of the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, as Rewire reported. But some jurisdictions have chosen not to enforce the law while five lawsuits against the FACT Act are pending.

Officials running CPCs contend they’d rather close than comply, and say in court filings the law violates their First Amendment rights.

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Matt Bowman, who is representing the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates in challenging the FACT Act, said in a statement earlier this month thatforcing [the centers] to promote abortion and recite the government’s messages is a clear violation of their constitutionally protected First Amendment freedoms.”

News Law and Policy

Crisis Pregnancy Centers Fail in Fight Against California Reproductive Disclosure Law

Nicole Knight Shine

The lawsuit is the fourth challenge to the new law that regulates pregnancy-related centers, requiring facilities to post a public notice about access to abortion and birth control.

California crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) must tell patients about the availability of birth control and abortion services, a federal judge said Tuesday, rejecting a court motion to temporarily block a state disclosure law.

Judge John A. Houston with the Southern District Court of California held that the “state clearly has a legitimate interest in ensuring pregnant woman are fully advised of their rights and treatment options when making reproductive health care decisions and the required disclosure is undeniably rationally related to that interest.”

Attorneys for two Southern California CPCs and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates had asked the judge to temporarily block the state’s Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, which went into effect January 1. The act, they argued in court filings, violated their clients’ freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, forcing the centers “to recite government messages promoting abortion.”

The centers, Fallbrook Pregnancy Resource Center and the Pregnancy Care Clinic, offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds and espouse Christian beliefs, their websites indicate.

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The lawsuit is the fourth challenge to the new law, which regulates centers “whose primary purpose is providing pregnancy-related services,” including CPCs, requiring the facilities to post a short public notice about access to abortion and birth control. Unlicensed centers are required to post a notice that they are not licensed medical facilities.

Concerns over CPCs dispensing misinformation to vulnerable patients prompted the law, passed last year by California’s Democratic-majority legislature. A recent California undercover investigation found that CPCs, generally staffed by anti-choice activists, discourage patients from having abortions by routinely lying to women about their options. Other investigations found that CPCs convince women to remain pregnant with false promises of financial aid and housing.

With Tuesday’s decision, three federal district courts and one state court have refused to block the law ahead of a trial.

Matt Bowman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based firm that has argued for anti-choice policies, said in a statement that California CPCs shouldn’t be “forced to promote abortion.”

“This law requires licensed medical centers, and also non-profit unlicensed centers, all of which provide free help to pregnant women, to recite a government message under threat of severe penalties, and is a clear violation of constitutionally protected First Amendment freedoms,” Bowman said in an email statement sent Tuesday to Rewire. “Courts around the country have already rightly struck down these types of laws.”

Public information laws about reproductive health have been met with mixed success in court. Appellate courts in recent years have struck down ordinances in New York City and Baltimore that required patients to be informed about reproductive health services. A San Francisco ordinance requiring pregnancy-related centers to tell the truth in advertisements survived a federal court challenge last year.

Operators of CPCs have said they will close down or refuse to comply with what they describe as a “bully bill.”

“I will not post that notice in our clinic,” Scott Scharpen, a party to one of four challenges to the law, said in a statement late last year. “I would rather close the clinic than post that notice. Now, by law, we are required to provide referral information to a woman for services that we find morally and ethically objectionable, namely abortion.”

Josh McClure, the executive director of East County Pregnancy Care Clinic, recently told the New York Times he won’t comply.

“I don’t want to put up a sign telling you where you can go for an abortion,” said McClure, whose clinic is also a plaintiff. “The sign is not up here now because it’s unconstitutional.”

Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) in October, the Reproductive FACT Act, or AB 775, was enacted to regulate pregnancy-related centers, including the nearly 350 CPCs that operate in the Golden State, according to a directory by the CPC umbrella group Heartbeat International.

Groups that fail to comply will face civil penalties up to $1,000.

Backers of AB 775 cited a recent undercover report by NARAL Pro-Choice California that found CPCs routinely lie about the physical and psychological risks of ending a pregnancy and delay a patient until abortion is no longer an option.

Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, said in an emailed statement that “California women deserve to get accurate information about reproductive health options free of interference, coercion or shame. It tells you all you need to know about Alliance Defending Freedom’s anti-choice agenda that they are suing to keep basic healthcare information from women.”

Federal judges in the eastern and northern districts of California have rejected motions to block the law, as Rewire reported in December.

Judge Kimberly Mueller of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District wrote in a 59-page decision that “enjoining the act would interfere with the public interest regarding the health of state residents.”

Judge Jeffrey S. White in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District held that CPCs engage in commercial or professional speech, which is subject to a lower degree of scrutiny than individual speech.

The four challenges to the law now await court hearings.