Crisis Pregnancy Centers: A new law in Baltimore protects pregnant women but perhaps poses a threat to our constitutional right to freedom of speech

The city of Baltimore recently passed a law—the first of its kind in the country—that requires “crisis pregnancy centers” to post signs that read: We do not offer or refer for abortion or birth control services.
Crisis pregnancy centers, which offer faith-based pro-life counseling to pregnant women free of charge, have come under public scrutiny in recent years. In 2006, a Congressional report by Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) found that the pregnancy centers often give “false or misleading information about the health risks of abortion” to pregnant women, many of whom are young and vulnerable, and often from low-income communities.

The health risks of abortion, warn many of these crisis pregnancy centers, include increased likelihood of depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, death by violent accident, breast cancer, and miscarriage, to name a few. Much of their information has been criticized, with claims of being misleading, from outdated sources, based on shame and fear tactics, or flat out wrong. The World Health Organization explicitly states, for example, that abortion does not cause breast cancer.

Many critics are unhappy because these crisis pregnancy centers which are supposedly giving out false information are sometimes funded with taxpayer money, in the form of both state and federal grants.

In some cases, the centers have given pregnancy tests to young women and informed them that they were not pregnant, when in fact they were. The implied tactic here is that the girls will end up not having the abortion because their is no need due to the fact that they are not pregnant. Counselors often bring up God, asking women if they believe in an afterlife: at a center in Oklahoma, a woman was told that abortion “risks the loss of your eternal salvation.”

Although crisis pregnancy centers are rarely staffed by medical professionals, they often place themselves next to medical clinics and hospitals, to project an image of professional care. Many are located either next to college campuses or in low-income communities, where rates for unintended pregnancy are highest.

It was these arguments that Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and others brought to the Baltimore City Council and used to eventually get a law passed mandating that crisis pregnancy centers put up disclaimer signs, under penalty of a hefty fine, as a kind of “truth in advertising” measure.

But now the Archdiocese of Baltimore is suing the city, claiming the mandatory signs constitute a violation of their first amendment right to free speech and free exercise of religion. Their argument is that the city government has no business forcing them to make a statement that is contrary to their faith, especially since the centers are staffed and run by volunteers who choose to counsel against abortion based on their religious and moral beliefs.

Aside from a constitutional violation, the pro-life community feels unfairly harassed and singled-out by the City Council. Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien has said that the new law targets “only one side of a contentious public, political debate.” Why is the government supporting the pro-choice community? Why aren’t abortion clinics required to put up signs stating, for example, that they do not offer baby bottles or adoption services?

Although the disclaimer signs for the pregnancy centers in Baltimore are intended to ensure that pregnant women receive truthful and accurate information regarding their bodies and their reproductive healthcare, the law sets a dangerous precedent: namely, that it is the job of government to regulate the language used (or not used) by businesses and non-profit organizations. The Baltimore law is the first of its kind in the country but Montgomery County, MD and Austin, TX have both recently passed similar legislation. It remains to be seen what will happen when less liberal, less progressive city governments across the country catch on.
– Hunter Stuart

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