This year will bring many new battles in the abortion war, and one skirmish is imminent: On Feb. 3 Austin LifeCare, a pregnancy resource center that opened its doors in 1984, is scheduled to fight in court the Austin City Council's attempt to dictate the signs it must put on those doors (see WORLD, Nov. 19, 2011).
Cities dominated by the left, including New York City and San Francisco, have passed ordinances aimed at pro-life pregnancy centers and exempting any group that offers abortions or refers women to abortion providers. The politicians say they must act because some women wanting abortions are wandering into offices that oppose their desires.
No city councils have coupled their requirement that pro-life centers announce "No abortion here" with a requirement that abortion businesses post signs announcing "No counseling" or "No facts about fetal development" here. That's one reason a U.S. District Court shot down a Baltimore City Council ordinance, ruling it violated the First Amendment's freedom of speech clause: "Whether a provider of pregnancy-related services is 'pro-life' or 'pro-choice,' it is for the provider-not the Government-to decide when and how to discuss abortion and birth-control methods."
But the generally unknown news about this latest political push is that it's not news. This is not the first but at least the fifth attempt to slam pregnancy resource centers.
The first push came in 1985 and 1986, but it had been building for over a decade. Although pro-abortion groups had argued in the late 1960s and early 1970s for pregnant women to get counseling, the groups after 1973's Roe v. Wade decision typically criticized counseling because "it often contributes to a feeling that there is something peculiar about a woman who seeks an abortion." A 1980s survey by David Reardon found that 91 percent of women who had abortions thought their counselors and doctors had failed to help them explore their decisions. Half of the women, according to Reardon's statistics, said they still hoped for an alternative even as they entered the abortionist's office.
That need led to the growth of pro-life counseling centers during the 1980s. Abortion proponents initially tried picketing such centers, but one pro-life counseling center director said she looked forward to picketing so she could "take advantage of the free publicity." The National Abortion Federation then started to accuse pro-life centers of deceiving pregnant women into thinking they could come in and get an abortion: "Like spiders, they lure their victims into their webs and then apply psychological terror."
Amy Sutnick of Planned Parenthood/New York City succeeded in planting an article about "deception" with a USA Today reporter who obediently said she was "overwhelmed by the brainwashing techniques and the lies." Among the "lies" typically offered by counseling centers: information about when unborn children had beating hearts and fingers, and warnings that abortion scarred women psychologically. CBS, newspapers such as Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Detroit Free Press, and magazines such as Vogue, also served as pro-abortion megaphones.
Abortion proponents succeeded in restricting pro-life centers in North Dakota and southern California. They tried to do the same elsewhere, but some reporters who carried the mail for pro-aborts were insufficiently slick. In 1985 a reporter for the American-Statesman, Austin's only daily newspaper, used Sutnick's Planned Parenthood template to write a long hit piece about the same pregnancy resource center that the Austin City Council has recently been harassing. The reporter, though, had foolishly not used a tape recorder as she listened to two representatives of the city's pregnancy resource center, including its founder, Susan Olasky.
The center had taped the interviews and could show that the reporter mangled quotations. That led to a four-hour meeting with the news editors who played the tape and could see that 24 of the 38 paragraphs in the story had misquotations, inaccuracies, or violations of standard journalistic ethics. The editors finally offered a grudging semi-apology and an offer of equal space to tell the center's side of the story.
Pro-lifers in other cities who learned about the Planned Parenthood campaign also fought back against sloppy reporters. Pregnancy resource centers survived, particularly as Operation Rescue took the brunt of abortion advocates' furor during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The second onslaught came in 1991 and 1992, and again it started with abortion advocates. People for the American Way said pro-life centers "gave false information about abortion and birth control"-which meant information that disagreed with that which abortionists wanted to disseminate. Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, visited key figures of ABC's Prime Time Live, who "immediately agreed to do an 'exposé' on the issue of crisis pregnancy centers," he said.
Fitzsimmons had also urged Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat then in the House of Representatives, to hold hearings on whether pregnancy resource centers told the truth. Wyden gave megaphones to abortion advocates and refused to let pro-life pregnancy center leaders testify. Not only ABC, but CBS and NBC as well, decided to run stories attacking the centers, using the hearings as a news hook. Fitzsimmons said the stories "would not have been possible without the hearing, and that was my idea."
Fitzsimmons later told the Media Research Center, "I was on the phone every day [with Prime Time producer Ben Sherwood]. I gave him all of that stuff. I gave him all of those names and clinics. Ben would call me every day and ask me about the situation in certain states." Among the attack points: Pregnancy resource centers used volunteer counselors rather than "accredited educators," provided "anti-choice propaganda," used pictures of babies to "emotionally manipulate" women, and said that abortion has psychological effects.
The shows went on and perhaps dissuaded some young women from coming to pro-life centers. Several court cases ended up with restrictions placed on some centers: A San Diego judge told the Center for Unplanned Pregnancy there that it could not offer free pregnancy tests, could not advertise in the Yellow Pages under listings for "abortion service providers" (a reasonable decision) or "pregnancy options counseling" (a remarkable stretch), and had to tell every telephone caller that the counseling it offered was "from a biblical anti-abortion perspective."
Most pregnancy resource centers continued their programs unimpeded, but those who spearheaded the attack went on to greater fame. Prime Time producer Ben Sherwood is now president of ABC News. Ron Wyden is now in the U.S. Senate. Fitzsimmons in 1993 was one of the top 50 "hired guns" on Capitol Hill, according to Washingtonian, and in 1995 he testified to Congress that partial-birth abortions occurred only when a mother's life was in jeopardy or an unborn child had a medical condition that would prevent his survival. Two years later Fitzsimmons told the American Medical News, "I lied through my teeth."
A new century brought the third attack on the centers. The most highly publicized part came in 2002 under the leadership of New York's attorney general at that time, Eliot Spitzer: He later went on to the governorship, then left office in disgrace as his patronage of prostitutes received exposure. In 2002 Spitzer's extracurricular activities were still secret but he openly praised NARAL, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, saying it was "instrumental" in his election and "made a difference not only for me but for candidates through the state who care about choice."
NARAL, meanwhile, put out a big booklet listing ways to harass pregnancy resource centers, and praised one technique in particular: "Persuade state attorney general to bring litigation" against centers for allegedly practicing medicine without a license. This was shrewd, because the advent of ultrasound machines through which parents could see not just a picture of an unborn baby, but a picture of their baby, was a big boost for pro-life education-and NARAL wanted to strangle that approach while it was still in gestation.
Spitzer came through, and Expectant Mother Care was one of five New York pregnancy resource centers that received subpoenas demanding masses of information to be used as evidence that they were "diagnosing and advising persons on medical options" without a license. Expectant Mother Care, founded in 1985, had served over 30,000 clients without facing any lawsuits, had an ultrasonographer licensed by the state, and two physicians, affiliated with major area hospitals, caring for clients.
Nevertheless, NARAL was hoping to find judges who would go along with the notion that counseling about abortion is illegally practicing medicine. That could have shut down many New York pregnancy resource centers and established precedents that would lead to new restrictions across the country, with every center that depends on trained volunteers made vulnerable. Anything that touched on medical ethics could become the exclusive province of physicians, with everyone else gagged.
Meanwhile, NARAL trained its supporters in other parts of the country on ways to "unmask fake clinics." Registrants at one training session in Los Angeles received exhortation to organize protests at pro-life centers and go undercover into the centers, saying "my parents will cut me off financially"-the expectation being that pro-lifers would then try to buy a baby. Registrants also gained advice on working with "religious leaders in your community to support comprehensive reproductive health care."
Happily, a counterattack commenced. South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon sent a letter to Spitzer criticizing the New Yorker's "ill-advised course of action." Condon noted that pro-life volunteers "freely give of themselves with a helpful hand and a loving heart," and that "the heavy hand of the government investigation ... will inevitably discourage community service and volunteerism." The American Center for Law and Justice and other legal groups came to the defense of the pregnancy resource centers, calling Spitzer's action "clearly a case of discrimination and harassment." Spitzer eventually withdrew the subpoenas, realizing he did not have much of a case, but in the meantime he had smeared the centers.
The fourth onslaught came in 2006, fueled once again by pro-abortion organizations working alongside politicians: In this instance Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) played a key role, charging that pregnancy resource centers provided "false and misleading information" on the effects of abortion on women. Waxman's report contended that visitors to "pregnancy resource centers are often vulnerable teenagers, who are susceptible to being misled and need medically accurate information to help them make a fully informed decision." He and abortion providers particularly objected to concerns about the psychological effects of abortion.
Waxman did not get much traction, in part because of the greater distribution and qualitative improvement of ultrasound equipment. Mothers wondering about abortion now can get not only medically accurate information but high-resolution pictures of their unborn babies. Five states (Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah) now require an ultrasound before an abortion can legally occur, and in two states the mother must be able to see the screen.
The fifth attack, now under way in Austin and other cities, is also moving against a pro-life tide that courts seem reluctant to oppose. Injunctions last year stopped abortion advocates in New York City and Montgomery County, Md. Matt Bowman of the Allied Defense Fund, which has represented many of the pregnancy centers under attack, said, "The reason these laws are not holding up is because they single out people with pro-life beliefs and force them to deliver the government's message."
Next month the Texas battle may be resolved. It began last April when the Austin City Council passed an ordinance to restrict what it called "Limited Service Pregnancy Centers." (The service that was limited: abortion.) The Council said pro-life centers must "prominently display" two signs declaring that they not only fail to facilitate abortion but also do not send clients to "providers of U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved birth control drugs and medical devices." The Council specified the colors, black and white, and the languages, English and Spanish.
Next month's judicial wrangling will show whether Austin liberals have overplayed their hand. But even if abortion proponents have to back off once again, another attack is likely. Their goal remains curtailment of free speech for those who bring up the inconvenient facts of life.