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New York City law imposes stiff fines, threaten shutdown, if center doesn’t post disclaimer. Two lawsuits pending against the Big Apple.
BY ROBERT KUMPEL
NEW YORK — According to the Guttmacher Institute, the national average for abortion is 22% of all pregnancies. New York City, however, may be the abortion capital of America: the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports that in 2009, 41% of its 225,000 pregnancies ended in abortion.
That number may continue to rise dramatically if pro-life pregnancy centers are hampered by a new law.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg March 15 signed into law Bill 371-A, a measure forcing such centers that do not provide abortion services to change the way they advertise. Specifically, all signs and advertising must make a series of 10 different disclosures in English and Spanish, including whether they provide abortion and contraception or make referrals for such services and whether or not there is a licensed medical provider on site.
When Bloomberg signed the bill, he expressed some doubt as to whether the bill was constitutional, but insisted he was signing in “good conscience” and said that those who objected to the law were free to challenge it in court.
Bloomberg’s challenge was taken up by both the Alliance Defense Fund and the American Center for Law and Justice, which have both filed lawsuits on behalf of crisis-pregnancy centers in the city. Matt Bowman, legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund said that the signs these centers are forced to post are counterproductive.
“The city of New York is trying to scare young women,” Bowman said. “When they come into a pregnancy-crisis center and see these signs, it only confuses and scares them. Two recent lawsuits in Maryland against these kinds of laws were successful in overturning them because of the First Amendment violations.”
The Baltimore law Bowman cited required pregnancy centers to post signs warning all prospective clients that they do not provide or make referrals for abortion or birth control. Specifically: “A limited-service pregnancy center must provide its clients and potential clients with a disclaimer substantially to the effect that the center does not provide or make referral for abortion or birth-control services.”
Failure to comply was a misdemeanor offense and carried a fine of up to $500 for each day of noncompliance.
U.S. District Judge Marvin Garvis ruled that the law violated the First Amendment, noting in his decision, “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.” The other lawsuit overturned a similar law in Montgomery County, Md.
Fines of $2,500 a Day
The main reason cited by pro-abortion activists for such laws is that pregnancy centers mislead young women into thinking that they are medical facilities by providing ultrasound exams. No one in Bloomberg’s office would comment; however, the mayor’s website said this about the law:
“Pregnancy-service centers provide services to women who are or may become pregnant and are not licensed by the state or federal government to provide medical or pharmaceutical services to women. These centers provide obstetric ultrasounds, obstetric sonograms or prenatal care or have the appearance of a licensed medical facility. To ensure that women are fully informed of the services provided by pregnancy-service centers, this bill requires the centers to inform their clients whether they have a licensed medical provider on staff and disclose whether they provide certain pregnancy-related services or not. This bill also requires centers to provide confidentiality protections for their clients’ personal and health information.”
However, most crisis-pregnancy centers do not charge for services and do not advertise themselves as medical facilities.
CeCe Heil, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, says that the lawsuits were filed so quickly because they were prepared in advance: “We informed the mayor and the city council that if they passed this bill that we would be filing a lawsuit because it didn’t pass constitutional muster. The two Maryland cases help our position and our clients’ position. I feel pretty confident about our position and the constitutional infringement of the law signed into law by Bloomberg.”
The fines for noncompliance are costly: $1,000 for the first day and up to $2,500 for each subsequent day. Centers that violate the law more than three times in a two-year period can be shut down and owners can face jail time. The law does not take effect for 120 days, which gives Heil and Bowman hope that they will get it overturned before their clients face fines and possible jail time for noncompliance.
Making an Informed Choice
However, New York City has plenty of people who don’t see this as a constitutional issue, like Ruth Acker, president of the Women’s City Club of New York. “We feel that all women have the right to full information, and ‘pro-choice’ isn’t necessarily ‘pro-abortion,’ but it’s to give the woman the right to choose; and you can’t make a good choice unless you have good information. The disclosure bill notifies the woman that some of these pregnancy-crisis centers are not going to distribute a complete range of information, are not going to provide abortion-counseling services, should the women wish them, and some of them, many of them, don’t have licensed medical doctors on site so that the information that the woman reveals in the interviews is not protected by doctor-patient confidentiality. We feel that to fail to disclose that is misleading and potentially a trap for a woman who is perhaps scared and wants the privacy of a doctor-patient conversation to explore her options.”
When pressed as to whether or not it is realistic to think that most women would not know about the availability of abortion, Acker replied, “There may be some.”
Heil says that most of these centers make no claim to be medical clinics and all provide confidentiality. “They had a hearing in November, and in the six hours of testimony, there were several people from NARAL and Planned Parenthood who had said, ‘We’ve had several women come to us who tell us this, this and this (about crisis-pregnancy centers). But, of course, they wouldn’t give us their names, and they weren’t there to testify.’ So when we get to the point of being in a court of law, that’s not going to hold up. They’re going to have to produce those people or it won’t be an issue.”
The threat of fines and jail time doesn’t seem to bother Nicole Bernacet, executive director of Boro Pregnancy Counseling Center, one of the clients Alliance Legal Defense is representing.
“We are committed to encouraging our clients to make an informed choice in regards to their unplanned pregnancy. We believe that only the client can make the best decision for their life and seek to offer them medically accurate, emotionally sensitive information,” said Bernacet, who is licensed as a mental-health counselor by the state of New York. “We believe that the well-educated individual is better equipped to make a positive decision.”
Register correspondent Robert Kumpel writes from Valdosta, Georgia.