NEW YORK — The attorney general of New York State has launched an investigation of crisis pregnancy centers for allegedly engaging in misleading advertising and the unlicensed practice of medicine.

Eliot Spitzer has demanded the records of at least three centers in New York City and Long Island since Jan. 3 and may subpoena more of the estimated 160 private centers around the Empire State.

Pro-life advocates see the move as harassment aimed at forcing the centers out of business. They also accuse Spitzer of being an agent of the National Abortion Rights Action League, which has published a manual on how to close the centers down.

There are some 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers in the country.

Part of the NARAL strategy is to petition state attorneys general to investigate the centers.

“Just the threat of litigation and enmeshment in the legal system is enough to put some of these centers out of business,” said Kenneth L. Connor, president of the Family Research Center and a former board chairman of Care Net, an umbrella organization for pre-natal care centers.

Spitzer's office declined comment, and telephone messages left at the National Abortion Rights Action League's national office were not returned. A spokesman for the New York affiliate of NARAL denied knowledge of the investigation or any communication with the attorney general about it.

But in an address to a NARAL luncheon in New York City on Jan. 22, 1999, soon after he was elected, Spitzer promised to establish a reproductive rights unit in his office and said it would, among other things, investigate “false advertisements for services.” He made the pledge while decrying what he called the “extremism” of “the opponents of reproductive rights.”

NARAL New York had endorsed Spitzer for attorney general, and he is running for reelection this year.

The woman Spitzer appointed to the reproductive rights unit, Jennifer K. Brown, is involved in the pregnancy center investigation. Brown is a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Clinton administration and former president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women. As a fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project, Brown was responsible for litigation of cases challenging state restrictions on access to abortion services, and supporting condom availability programs in public schools.

Receiving subpoenas were the Pregnancy Resource Center on Manhattan's East Side, the Cross Road Foundation, which operates Pregnancy Resource Services on Staten Island, and the Life Center of Long Island in Deer Park. The subpoenas stated that based upon an initial investigation, Spitzer has a “good faith belief” that the centers may have violated statutes by “misrepresenting the services they provide, diagnosing pregnancy and advising persons on medical options without being licensed to do so, and/or providing deceptive and inaccurate medical information.”

The subpoenas also said that the attorney general seeks to determine whether the centers have engaged in deceptive business practices.

The Pregnancy Resource Center in Manhattan issued a brief statement saying, “We are confident that the Pregnancy Center has not violated the laws of the State of New York.”

“We're going to fight this,” vowed John Margand, a founding director of the center, who said it operates within state laws and intends to continue doing so.

Christopher Slattery, who founded Expectant Mother Care and runs five pregnancy help centers in the city, was not yet served with a subpoena when interviewed though he expected to receive one. In the meantime, he was assembling a legal team to fight Spitzer's action. The team includes the American Catholic Lawyers Association, the American Center for Law and Justice and the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy.

“Ultimately, I think they will try to harass and intimidate us or force us into some kind of consent judgment that will impede access to this kind of help,” said Slattery. If so, though, he said that would violate the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances law, which ironically was enacted to protect abortion clinics from Operation Rescue protests. Spitzer's action would keep women out of crisis pregnancy centers by forcing the centers to make it explicit in their ads that they do not perform abortions.

In New York City and Long Island, 16 centers jointly participate in a Yellow Pages ad campaign. Many of those centers already underwent state scrutiny in the mid-1980s under former attorney general Robert Abrams, who forced the Yellow Pages to create a new category, “Abortion Alternatives.” The centers’ ads now appear with a disclaimer indicating that they do not perform abortions.

Slattery insists that the advertising is clear as to what the centers do and what they offer: free abortion alternatives, confidential counseling, ultra-sound and health and safety information.

But the language of the ads is neutral regarding abortion, and many women who respond to them are considering abortion and may think they are calling an abortion clinic. Counselors refrain from discussing abortion over the telephone and encourage callers to come in for an interview in which they can hear facts that, pro-life advocates contend, they won't hear in abortion clinics.

If the crisis pregnancy centers are forced to put “pro-life buzzwords” in their ads, Slattery fears, abortion-bound women won't respond. “We want to present ourselves as objective about abortion,” he said. “We want to give the pros and cons” on the issue. The other side never gives the cons, the risks. People absorb [the pro-life message] gradually as they come in and meet with a compassionate counselor.”

As for the allegations in the subpoena, Slattery, who until recently also ran the Pregnancy Resource Center in Manhattan, said his centers practice counseling but not medicine. “Counselors are trained not to give out medical advice,” he said.

Women are instructed how to give themselves a urine pregnancy test and can set up an appointment for a free sonogram and consultation with a licensed, board-certified physician. “They sign a form stating they understand that a self pregnancy test is not a diagnosis,” Slattery said.

Expectant Mother Care runs several medical crisis pregnancy centers in affiliation with Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center in the Bronx, and Slattery said they comply with all health department regulations.

Heartbeat International, based in Columbus, Ohio, has provided Slattery's counselors with training, but he fears that Spitzer's investigation might lead to a requirement that the centers use licensed professional counselors. Not only would that be prohibitive in cost, it would also subject those counselors to state control and require them to be morally neutral on abortion and non-directive in their counseling, he said.

Mark Crutcher, founder of Life Dynamics in Denton, Texas, said requiring licensed counselors would constitute hypocrisy on the part of a pro-abortion attorney general.

“The abortion industry puts people without training in there to counsel women,” said Crutcher, who has started a project to help educate abortion clinic workers on the illegal and unethical activities occurring in clinics. Some, he said, are counseling women very soon after being hired and ask clients little more than, “Are you sure this is something you want to do?”

NARAL New York's Robert Jaffe disputed that charge, saying clinics in New York are required to be licensed. “Abortion is an extremely safe procedure,” he said. “It is the second most common surgical procedure in the United States…There is no evidence documenting a widespread problem.”

However, citing the numerous deaths and injuries in abortion clinics, pro-life advocates say attorneys general should investigate the abortion industry, not pregnancy centers. “Abortion clinics typically get a free ride,” said the Family Research Council's Connor. “There's an incredible double standard. They're less regulated than veterinary clinics, which means your dog is safer than your minor daughter.”

Spitzer is requiring the crisis pregnancy centers to produce by Feb. 1 an exhaustive list of documents, including copies of ads and promotional literature, a description of the full range of services provided, names and credentials of staff and training materials and guidelines. That in itself would take the nonprofit centers, which are largely staffed by volunteers, scores of man-hours and interfere with their ability to help clients.

“It's a nuisance,” said Lorraine Gariboldi, director of the Life Center of Long Island. “We're very busy helping poor, pregnant women, many of them homeless.”