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Council OKs ordinance mandating disclosure signs at pregnancy centers

Friday, April 9, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

The City Council took on the hot-button issue of family planning yesterday, resulting in a new ordinance that will require all limited service pregnancy centers in the city to post signs disclosing that they do not provide or refer for abortions or comprehensive birth control services.


According to the language of the ordinance, “limited service pregnancy center” refers to any organization or facility that provides pregnancy counseling or information as its primary purpose but does not provide abortions or comprehensive birth control services or referrals for abortions or comprehensive birth control services. 


Under the terms of the new ordinance, sponsored by Council Member Bill Spelman and co-sponsored by Council Member Laura Morrison and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, owners or operators of limited service pregnancy centers, also known as “crisis pregnancy centers,” will be required to prominently display, at the entrance of their centers, two black-and-white signs, one in English and one in Spanish, stating, “This center does not provide abortions or refer to abortion providers. This center does not provide or refer to providers of U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved birth control drugs and medical devices.”


Violations of the ordinance will be considered Class C misdemeanors, punishable by a fine of not less than $250 for the first offense, not less than $350 for a second offense, and not less than $450 for a third offense. Spelman assured those in attendance that “no one’s going to be arrested for not putting a sign up.” 


Though the ordinance passed unanimously, 7-0, opinion in Council chambers was decidedly mixed. Pro-choice advocates, such as NARAL Pro-Choice Texas Political Consultant Blake Rocap, argued that the ordinance would ensure that women seeking assistance would be doing so with “all the information they need to make a decision.”


“The ordinance is so minimal it’s hard to imagine a real downside,” Rocap said. “Nothing in the ordinance forces anyone to do anything they’re opposed to. It just requires honesty about the services they do and do not provide.”


Rocap told Council that NARAL has been doing studies on CPCs since 2005, sending in volunteers to seek information and counseling that was often biased against abortion and birth control options. “They should be up front about that,” he told Council. “Their resistance makes me wonder how much of what they do is based on a certain amount of dishonesty, providing misleading information about prenatal care and pregnancy options.”


Heather Busby, board president of abortion assistance group the Lilith Fund, told Council stories about teenage women her group had worked with who claimed they had been misled by CPCs about the dangers and legality of abortion and, in some cases, harassed and mistreated by CPC staff members and/or volunteers.


It’s important for women, Busby said, to realize that these CPCs are not medical clinics and that some are pro-life advocacy centers. “Many of us in this room would know better,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s fair to expect all the members of the public to have the same opportunities for knowledge about the abortion laws in this country. Many young women, who are vulnerable, can be easily duped into getting this misinformation.”


But CPC advocates stressed the point that they are, in truth, up front about the services they will and won’t provide. Marie Seale, director of the Office of Pro-Life Activities and Chaste Living for the Catholic Diocese of Austin, said that the pregnancy center she was there representing, East Austin’s Gabriel Project Life Center, informs visitors on their intake form that they are not a medical facility and don’t provide referral for abortions. 


“We are honest about the services we provide and don’t provide,” she said. “We’re here to care for these women. It doesn’t benefit them nor does it benefit us to be dishonest with them.”


According to Seale and several other speakers opposed to the ordinance, the primary issue had to do with free-speech rights. The city, they argued, has no right to compel CPCs to say anything they don’t want to say.


“This is an issue of free speech vs. government-compelled speech,” Seale told In Fact Daily, ”of the City of Austin telling us how to tell the truth.”


Stephen Casey, a lawyer allied with Care Net, a national umbrella organization supporting over 1,100 crisis pregnancy centers that provide “abortion alternatives,” said that he would advise any centers to disregard the statutes. “And then,” he said, “when they’re ticketed, there are going to be lawsuits that are going to be filed, and it will be game on.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole asked City Attorney David Smith what kind of legal issues Council needed to be aware of before voting.


Smith said that, based on his study of a similar ordinance passed last year in Baltimore, he believes the city government has the right to make legislation related to the dissemination of information for public health purposes and truthful advertising to consumers. “There is precedent that supports this kind of an ordinance,” he said.

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