Lawmakers accused of free-speech breach with crackdown on pro-life pregnancy centers


Pro-life pregnancy centers are coming under increasing pressure to promote abortion or close shop, raising thorny questions about whether governments may compel speech in the name of combating deceptive advertising.

The debate has taken center stage in Massachusetts, where the Worcester City Council is considering an ordinance to require pro-life or crisis pregnancy centers to provide abortion referrals — an effort that follows on the heels of similar new movements in Somerville, Easthampton and Cambridge.

Worcester City Councilor Thu Nguyen, who sponsored the proposed ordinance, accused some facilities of engaging in deceptive maneuvers to steer pregnant clients away from abortion.

“These center tactics include telling lies about abortions, birth control, sexual health; talking about religion when that’s not what you came for, and saying judgmental things about premarital sex, single parenting, queer folks and BIPOC folks,” the councilor said at a July 19 meeting. “They use intimidation tactics as well as delaying medical healthcare. And this is where we need to take a stance.”

The councilor added that “if these centers aren’t deceptive, they have nothing to worry about,” but Councilor Kathleen M. Toomey said that any complaints about false advertising should be handled by the attorney general’s office.

“Here in Worcester, people have the right to free speech,” said Ms. Toomey. “It’s not about abortion, it’s about free speech, and as a council, we need to honor free speech. I’m not going to take away an agency’s free speech. If they’re deceptively advertising, then the attorney general is the person to handle that issue.”

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 24 decision overturning Roe v. Wade triggered a backlash against pro-life facilities, which typically provide services such as free ultrasounds, pregnancy tests, parenting classes and baby supplies.

Whether they must also offer abortion referrals has become a question for lawmakers as well as the courts.

The Alliance Defending Freedom sued the state of Connecticut on behalf of Care Net shortly after the passage of a 2021 law giving the attorney general the authority to levy fines against “limited services pregnancy centers” for “deceptive advertising practices.”

“The practical result of enforcing the Act’s speech ban is not only to inhibit a religious ministry from furthering its mission and message, but also to coerce religious speakers to speak messages about abortion that they conscientiously object to,” said the lawsuit filed in October in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

At the Worcester council meeting, Ms. Toomey made the point that “a lot of these agencies are faith-based … There are laws protecting religious agencies. They don’t have to provide abortion services.”

“They do a totally different programming for folks that don’t necessarily want it [abortion],” Ms. Toomey said. “As a matter of fact, I understand in one of these places, you actually have to sign an acknowledgment that you know that they don’t provide abortion services. Another one of the agencies on their website specifically states that they don’t provide abortion services, so I don’t know what deceptive practices people are talking about when it’s very clear.”

The council voted 6-5 to have a draft ordinance prepared that would specify such establishments “must either directly provide or provide referrals for abortions or emergency contraception.”

Of the Massachusetts towns weighing such proposals, only Somerville has actually passed such a measure, but Somerville has no pro-life pregnancy centers within its borders. Worcester has at least two: Clearway Clinic and Problem Pregnancy.

Both centers were attacked earlier this month by vandals who broke windows and defaced the buildings with paint. The perpetrators at Clearway Clinic spray-painted “Jane’s Revenge” on the front step, a reference to the radical pro-choice group targeting pro-life centers and churches nationwide.

“This violence is disturbing, but it should not be a surprise,” said Andrew Beckwith, president and general counsel of the Massachusetts Family Institute, in a July 7 post. “Abortion itself is a horrific act of violence, and its proponents are seething with rage from their recent defeat at the Supreme Court.”

The pro-life centers outnumber abortion clinics by an estimated 3 to 1, even in deep-blue Massachusetts.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, brought legislation last month to “stop anti-abortion disinformation by crisis pregnancy centers” by directing the Federal Trade Commission to issue rules barring “deceptive or misleading advertising related to the provision of abortion services.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey issued a consumer advisory earlier this month about crisis pregnancy centers, saying they “often mislead people about how far they are into their pregnancy” and “try to delay scheduling appointments to push people beyond the point at which they can obtain an abortion.”

Abortion is legal in Massachusetts up to 24 weeks’ gestation, and afterward to preserve the life or health of the mother and in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities.

“In Massachusetts, so-called crisis pregnancy centers outnumber legitimate abortion care providers 3 to 1,” said Ms. Warren in a July 6 statement. “I strongly commend Attorney General Healey and community partners for their efforts to crack down on these deceptive organizations to protect residents and women coming to Massachusetts seeking abortion care.”

Catholic Action League executive director C.J. Doyle said such measures represent viewpoint discrimination, given that Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics receive no “comparable scrutiny.”

“Crisis pregnancy centers, unlike Planned Parenthood, receive no taxpayer funding, and little if any corporate or foundation support,” he said. “They offer women compassionate alternatives to abortion. They provide free pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, counseling, job placement, housing, and needed clothing and baby supplies.”

In 2021, the Massachusetts centers served nearly 3,000 women, provided 1,500 pregnancy tests and 1,200 ultrasounds, and distributed more than 20,000 packages of diapers, and provided nearly 100 women with post-abortion counseling, the institute said.

There are nearly 30 crisis pregnancy centers in Massachusetts, according to the Boston-based group Reproductive Equity Now, which maintains a list of what it calls “fake women’s health centers.”

“Crisis pregnancy centers’ fake and deceptive advertising about reproductive care options isn’t just a consumer protection issue — these facilities pose serious health and safety threats to pregnant people seeking unbiased information about their reproductive choices,” said Reproductive Equity Now Executive Director Rebecca Hart Holder in a March 25 statement.

If the Worcester ordinance passes, Mr. Doyle said Clearway Clinic and Problem Pregnancy should sue the city.

“This is an authoritarian measure, hostile to the First Amendment, conceived in lies, and which, if passed, will reward criminal violence,” Mr. Doyle said.


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