ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Years before he was forced to resign the New York state governorship, Eliot Spitzer had another defeat. It was late 2001, early 2002, and the tough New York state attorney general was demanding that crisis-pregnancy centers hand over copies of all advertisements, website addresses, services provided, staff who provided the services, training materials, blank forms, records of all agreements made, and a list of all persons who received any service from the clinics before Feb. 1, 2002.
He wanted to prove that the centers were misrepresenting themselves and leading frightened, pregnant women astray — limiting their legal options to kill their unborn children.
But the centers fought back, and Spitzer was forced to withdraw his subpoenas.
Although Spitzer is now a disgraced ex-governor, resigning after revelations that he patronized an elite prostitution ring, crisis-pregnancy centers — or pregnancy-resource centers — are still being attacked.
Centers in Maryland recently defeated a legislative bill, Senate Bill 690, backed by NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) Pro-Choice Maryland, that would have forced them to tell clients that they were not required to provide factually accurate information.
A similar bill was defeated in Oregon in 2007, and legislation has been introduced in Texas, Ohio, West Virginia and New Jersey. Care Net, a network of more than 1,100 pregnancy centers, has been following the bills and monitoring activities on NARAL websites, where members are being encouraged to investigate, complain and harass pregnancy-resource centers, said Kristin Hansen, vice president of communications.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in activity, starting in 2000 when NARAL put out a handbook that gave members a step-by-step guide to disparage and seek to shut down pregnancy centers,” said Hansen. “The areas they hone in on are the abortion-risk information. They say we’re lying about the potential risks and that we’re tricking people into coming in by posing as an abortion clinic. When push comes to shove, NARAL and other groups can’t point to examples where our advertising is misleading.”
Tom Glessner, president of the National Institute for Family & Life Advocates, who provided legal testimony in the Maryland and Oregon hearings, said a smear campaign against the centers has been going on for 26 years — and more can be expected.
“There is so much hatred out there towards pro-life pregnancy centers; they want to destroy them,” he said. “Abortion is a multimillion dollar industry and women who go to a pregnancy-resource center and choose life is lost income to the abortion industry.”
The Maryland bill was clearly unconstitutional, said Nancy Paltell, associate director for the Maryland Catholic Conference Respect for Life office, who worked with Maryland Right to Life on the bill. “Can you imagine the chilling effect it would have on a scared pregnant woman looking for help: to be told on the phone that we’re not required to tell you the truth? This is government-mandated speech.”
Testimony by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland was based on its own investigative report, “The Truth Revealed.” The report claimed that the centers provided false medical information designed to mislead women, such as the risk of breast cancer from abortion, the possibility of post-abortion trauma, and infection from an incomplete abortion. Calls to NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland were not returned.
Lucy Sneeringer, director of the Cecil County Pregnancy Center in Elkton, Md., affiliated with Care Net, testified that all staff are trained to follow specific standards based on a commitment of care, and all medical information provided in brochures and in counseling sessions is cited in scientific journals and studies that anyone can look up and read themselves.
Many women served by the pregnancy-resource centers testified to the support and help that they received, and Sneeringer pointed out that clients are routinely referred to them by organizations such as the Cecil County Department of Social Services, the Cecil County Health Department, Elkton’s Union Hospital and local obstetrics-gynecology offices.
“Interestingly enough, one of their biggest complaints is that we mislead people into thinking we’re medical facilities,” she said. “We don’t even call ourselves clinics. Our pregnancy-resource center, or any with a national affiliation, has a very explicit disclaimer on its “Request for Services” form. At the bottom is a box that specifically claims who we are and who we are not.”
Sneeringer said Planned Parenthood of Maryland has even posted that disclaimer on its own website as a “center that’s doing it right.”
State Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Waldorf, said in an e-mail statement that there was a great deal of discussion on the proposal by many groups, but a vote was never taken on the measure.
“I recognize the value in crisis-pregnancy centers in that they provide options to abortion and can assist women, especially young women, in providing them resources on such programs as SCHIP [State Children’s Health Insurance Program] and other health-related programs,” he wrote. “However, during the discussions regarding SB 690 there was a concern that those providing counseling may not be qualified or certified to do so. The legislation was held with the hopes of having further discussions on this issue of professional counseling.”
He said he was “very impressed by the many pregnancy-center representatives I met during the deliberations of this proposal and am very grateful we have such tremendous centers and compassionate individuals providing such a necessary resource to the women in our state.”
Sneeringer and Paltell agreed that this experience was a great opportunity to get the word out, particularly among legislators who are not aware of their existence, about the work pregnancy-resource centers are doing.
The centers have more work cut out for them, however. The Feminist Majority Foundation’s campus program is recruiting college students for its Campaign to Expose Fake Clinics. Part of the campaign strategy is to organize protests against pregnancy-resource centers. Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, called this effort a “distraction.”
“This is not inspired, and it doesn’t help,” she said. “Instead of focusing on the real needs of women and the lack of resources and support that drive women to have an abortion, they’re outside protesting [centers] that are doing hard work on a few dollars and volunteer time.”
Barb Ernster is based
in Fridley, Minnesota.