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Mayor Shelia Dixon (Associated Press/Photo by Rob Carr)

Targeting pro-lifers

Abortion | A law regulating Baltimore crisis pregnancy centers awaits the mayor's signature

For the first time, a governmental body has passed legislation that would regulate pregnancy centers that counsel women about abortion alternatives. Responding to accusations from pro-abortion groups that pro-life crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) mislead women about the services they do-and do not-provide, the Baltimore City Council passed a measure that would fine CPCs $150 a day if they fail to post signs stating they do not "provide or make referral for abortion or birth-control services." Since the bill, which has yet to be signed into law by Baltimore's mayor, has no similar requirements for abortion providers, pro-life organizations have called the action ideologically driven and one that unfairly targets pro-life centers.

Carol Clews-executive director of Center for Pregnancy Concerns, one of the Baltimore CPCs the law targets-said that her organization is transparent about the fact that it does not provide abortions and that "virtually no women" come to the centers expecting an abortion: "We don't try to dupe women or lure them in here making them think we do abortions." She and other pro-life organizations say the legislation implies that CPCs are dishonest-an implication that the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) Pro-Choice Maryland made freely in a statement applauding the bill's passage: "CPCs . . . often give out false and misleading information in an effort to discourage women from seeking abortion or using contraception."

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has indicated it will consider pursuing legal action if the bill does becomes law, but until then pro-life organizations are waiting until Mayor Sheila Dixon decides whether she will sign the bill, veto it, or let it become law without her signature. Clews said it's "entirely possible" there will be a legal challenge, but her organization intends to comply with the law: "We have no interest in facing any kind of $150 a day fine. Believe me, a small organization like this one could go under very quickly."

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Baltimore City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake justified the legislation by pointing to a 2008 NARAL undercover investigation of 11 Maryland CPCs. NARAL's report claimed that "every CPC visited provided misleading or, in some cases, completely false information." The report claims that when contacted for an abortion referral, seven of the 11 centers "encouraged callers to come in for a pregnancy test and stated that they could provide information on abortion." The centers refused to refer for an abortion "while continuing to encourage the caller to come in to the center for counseling."

The report does not say which centers provided which misleading information, making the report impossible to verify, and looked mostly at CPCs outside of Baltimore. The report itself does not suggest legislation of the kind passed by the Baltimore City Council.

Jeff Meister, director of administration and legislation at Maryland Right to Life, said the ordinance shows a shift in tactics targeting CPCs. Lawmakers in several states-Oregon, Texas, West Virginia, New York, and Maryland-have tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation regulating CPCs. Meister believes that abortion advocates are now first targeting local areas where they have more support, to build a precedent of public officials passing legislation that implies CPC dishonesty.

Also in Maryland, the Montgomery County Council is considering a similar bill that would impose a $750 daily fine for CPCs that do not offer a disclaimer saying their information is not intended to be medical advice and that clients should turn to other providers before deciding on a course of action. According to Meister, after the Baltimore City Council passed its legislation, Montgomery County quickly attached a harsher amendment to the its measure.

Care Net, a national network of CPCs, testified against the Baltimore bill in October, saying it was "designed to emphasize an ideological complaint that pro-abortion advocates have with regard to pregnancy centers." Care Net argued that the bill violated the First Amendment and equal protection rights by compelling speech and discriminating against pro-life organizations for their pro-life views. If the legislation becomes law, the courts may take up Care Net's arguments.

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