WASHINGTON — Legislation to require federal oversight of nonprofit crisis-pregnancy centers for the first time has seen little movement since it was first introduced several years ago. But such a measure could quickly pass during a so-called “lame duck” session of Congress after the November midterm elections, according to congressional supporters.

Such federal oversight could add massive legal costs to defend pregnancy centers from even baseless claims, according to supporters of the centers, and could limit the volunteer-run programs’ resources available to help pregnant women and new mothers. 

House and Senate companion bills to grant regulatory authority by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over advertising used by nonprofit crisis-pregnancy centers have not advanced since they were introduced on June 30.  However, Democratic congressional staff told the Register that the measures could advance quickly and pass during the usually noncontroversial legislative session following a November election.

Such legislative sessions are usually limited to finishing work on must-pass legislation to fund the operations of the federal government. However, Democrats — facing the prospect of massive losses in November — have raised the possibility in recent weeks that they may use the session to enact several controversial measures before surrendering control of the legislature to the newly elected Congress next year. 

Any decision to add the pregnancy center legislation to the lame-duck schedule would be based on the efforts of pro-abortion advocates, who have urged their allies among the Democratic leadership to make this legislation a priority.

“The fact that the interest groups are aware and have created a flurry, that is something,” said one Democratic leadership staffer about the bill’s lame-duck prospects.

Federal Push

Pro-abortion advocates have made the legislation one of their priorities in the current Congress after they succeeded recently in enacting some similar measures at the local level. City councils in Baltimore and Austin, Texas, have enacted similar advertising-enforcement measures, as has Montgomery County, Md. The measures are designed to prevent the pro-life pregnancy centers from talking women who want abortion out of the procedure while offering pregnancy and postpartum care and services.

“Many women who face unwanted pregnancies find themselves in a very difficult, very personal situation,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., when she introduced one of the bills. “They shouldn’t have to face the added stress of deciphering whether or not the clinic they choose offers legitimate medical services.”

Proponents of the FTC bills said such federal oversight is needed because crisis-pregnancy centers appear in phone book and online advertising sections under “abortion services.” Additionally, women are misled by false information about abortion risks that they receive from crisis-pregnancy centers, the bill’s advocates argue.

Pregnancy center supporters counter that phone book companies already have created “abortion alternatives” advertising sections for the pregnancy centers and the groups use such phrasing in online ads.
In fact, Joe Young, vice president of Heartbeat International, an association of 1,100 Christian crisis-pregnancy centers, said his group has found that abortion providers are advertising under “abortion alternatives” descriptions.

“But this legislation will do nothing to curb the misleading ads by abortion groups and providers,” Young said.

Abortion advocates disputed that abortion providers use misleading advertising and rejected the idea that the legislation should apply to them as well. It’s not false or misleading, for example, for abortion providers to advertise under the “abortion alternatives” ad heading because some provide adoption referrals, said Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation.

“If you go to an abortion clinic and do not want an abortion, they will refer you to a facility that can appropriately care for you,” Saporta said.

Additionally, advocates for crisis-pregnancy centers, which do not offer abortions or refer women for them, said they do not provide false or misleading information. Instead, they offer scientific findings that have been underreported in the media and ignored by pro-abortion politicians.

“Lying would violate our beliefs,” said Virginia Cline, director of public policy/PR for Heartbeat International. “We can document the scientific basis for all of the information we provide.”

For instance, some pregnancy centers were blasted in a 2006 investigative report by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., for telling callers that abortions increased the risk for breast cancer despite “a medical consensus that induced abortion does not cause an increased risk of breast cancer,” the report stated.

However, in recent years several U.S. and international studies have found “induced abortions” are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, including a 2009 study conducted by a researcher from the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The true reason behind the federal advertising legislation is to add costs and legal concerns to the volunteer-run clinics, pro-life advocates contend.

“The opposition sees this as a way to shut us down,” said Melinda Delahoyde, president of Care Net, a network of about 1,150 pregnancy centers.

Delahoyde and other pregnancy center leaders said the facilities are not lying about abortion-related risks and therefore do not fear FTC penalties, but the legal costs of defending their volunteer staff and facilities from allegations could impact their growth.

“Increased regulations based on [allegations] that are not true would hurt us,” Delahoyde said.

Influence Growing

The number of facilities that would be affected by the proposed federal oversight has rapidly grown from a handful to several thousand over the four decades since abortion was legalized. Pregnancy center advocates credit their growth to their dedicated volunteer staff members, who are highly trained to provide a range of prenatal and postpartum care.

“It’s no wonder that a movement like this — and it really is a movement — is getting this kind of attention,” Delahoyde said about her organization’s 33,000 volunteers. “This is a grassroots movement that operates day in and day out, regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C.” 

The pregnancy center organizers, their congressional supporters and even some in the mainstream media have credited the pregnancy centers and their low-key services to women across the country with far-reaching impact, including changing the public’s attitudes toward abortion. One such possible impact was the finding by an annual Gallup poll that a majority of Americans (51%) described themselves as “pro-life” for the first time since they began asking the question in 1995.

Pregnancy centers “are making an impact in changing the perception of their communities toward abortion,” Cline said. Pro-abortion “groups don’t like that trend.”

Rich Daly writes from Washington.