Crisis-Pregnancy Center Lawsuit in Connecticut May Affect Abortion Alternatives Elsewhere
Pro-abortion politicians in Connecticut are targeting pro-life pregnancy centers within the state, claiming the omission of abortion as a service is ‘deceptive advertising.’
HARTFORD, Conn. — A pro-life crisis-pregnancy center in Connecticut is challenging a new state law that could have repercussions elsewhere in the country.
In May 2021, the Connecticut General Assembly approved a bill banning what it calls deceptive advertising by crisis-pregnancy centers.
Supporters of the bill call such centers “limited service” because they don’t provide abortion or emergency contraception. Instead, such centers typically offer ultrasound images, pregnancy tests, counseling, baby-care products and referrals to state welfare agencies, among other things. There about 25 in the state. Most are faith-based.
The statute, which took effect July 1, 2021, prohibits “any statement concerning any pregnancy-related service or the provision of any pregnancy-related service that is deceptive, whether by statement or omission, and that a limited services pregnancy center knows or reasonably should know to be deceptive.”
The law enables the Connecticut attorney general to act on a complaint by notifying a crisis-pregnancy center of a violation and giving the center 10 days to fix it. If the center doesn’t comply, the attorney general can bring a civil lawsuit against it, which can result in a court issuing a fine of up to $500 per violation plus court costs and attorney’s fees.
In October 2021, a Christian crisis-pregnancy center in the coastal city of New London sued in federal court to try to overturn the law, claiming that it violates the U.S. Constitution by impinging on the clinic’s right to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.
“The Act is not drafted or intended primarily to limit deceptive speech or inform women where they can receive abortions or abortifacient drugs. The Act’s intent is interfering with pro-life views about life, pregnancy, and motherhood,” states a complaint filed in U.S. District Court by lawyers for Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center of Southeastern Connecticut. “The Act is a speaker-based, viewpoint-based law targeting the speech only of speakers espousing certain pro-life moral, religious, and philosophical beliefs.”
Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, the Arizona-based advocacy organization representing the crisis pregnancy center, told the Register that the Connecticut law “singles out pregnancy centers for the speech that they engage in, and does so in an unconstitutional way.”
Like other states, Connecticut has a long-standing statute that prohibits deceptive advertising by businesses. But state officials say they are unsure whether it applies to nonprofit organizations that don’t charge for goods or services — and faith-based crisis-pregnancy centers provide everything free of charge. Supporters of the new law say that’s why it’s needed.
During a floor debate in May 2021 before the House bill passed, its lead sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, said some clinics in the state are misleading the public in two ways: They claim to offer comprehensive pregnancy services when they don’t offer abortion or referrals for it; and they claim that a chemical abortion can in some cases be reversed after the first dose. (Some pro-lifers say that’s possible; abortion supporters saying that is non-medical advice about an approach they say is physically dangerous for women.)
“I don’t think women in the state of Connecticut should be deceived when they’re seeking legal reproductive health care,” said Gilchrest, a former executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut and co-founder of the state legislature’s recently announced Reproductive Rights Caucus.
The bill passed, 87-56. (Only Democrats voted for the bill; six Democrats joined 50 Republicans in opposing it.)
A spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection told the Register that the agency has received no complaints against pregnancy centers.
Gilchrest acknowledged that point during floor debate last spring, but she attributed it to a reluctance from women in that position to file a complaint as opposed to the absence of a problem.
“I would say in the climate that we are in, when it comes to reproductive health care — in particular, abortion — women are often under attack, or made to feel guilty or shame about that decision. And so for a woman to know that there might be a state agency she can go to if she’s been deceived at a limited service pregnancy center is somewhat far-fetched,” Gilchrest said in May 2021. “And so it does not come as a surprise to me that we have not had complaints in the state of Connecticut through our state agencies.”
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, who endorsed the bill and is defending the statute in court on behalf of the state, denied the crisis-pregnancy center’s arguments of constitutional infringements in court papers filed in December, without elaborating. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office declined comment last week when contacted by the Register.
Tong, in a May 2019 television interview on News12 Long Island, called it his job as attorney general “to be the firewall for reproductive rights in this country and here in this state.”
The interviewer asked Tong how he would enforce the deceptive advertising bill if it were passed (which happened two years later).
“So that’s up to a judge,” Tong replied. “But, obviously, we’re going to take action when we see someone representing that they’re going to provide services that they’re not qualified to provide. So, when an organization — we’ve seen some of this — puts up a website and sends out promotional materials and advertises on a side of a bus that says, ‘Are you pregnant? Do you want help with your pregnancy? Do you want abortion-related help and services?’ That’s a pretty clear signal to someone who needs help — who, by the way, is facing in many cases an unwanted pregnancy, very scared, very confused, very concerned, very worried about a variety of issues in their life.”
“And they walk into a clinic; they are, in most cases, expecting to have the full range of options available to them, including terminating that pregnancy, if that’s the right choice for them,” Tong added. “And then to walk into a place where people are wearing lab coats and people representing themselves as medical professionals, but then hearing, ‘No, sorry, we don’t offer those services, but we want to talk to you, you know, about our view of what your options are,’ and trying to counsel people away from terminating a pregnancy.”
Pro-life pregnancy-center administrators say they don’t try to trick prospective clients and that staff members at their centers wear medical attire because they are medical personnel.
At Women’s Center of Eastern Connecticut in Willimantic, for instance, a registered diagnostic medical stenographer performs ultrasounds, which she is licensed to do, while wearing scrubs because she frequently encounters urine and gel, said Jeremy Bradley, the executive director of Caring Families Pregnancy Services Inc., which operates the pregnancy center.
Asked by the Register about Tong’s 2019 comments, Bradley responded: “So there has been no evidence ever presented in the state of Connecticut that a person who was in scrubs or wearing a lab coat wasn’t actually a medical professional. … A big part of what we’re hearing are talking points that have not been verified in the state of Connecticut.”
Crisis-Pregnancy Centers Targeted
Some crisis-pregnancy centers are situated near abortion businesses, trying to reach women with problematic pregnancies to offer them pro-life alternatives to abortion. Some operate mobile units that park near abortion facilities.
The competition has led to a cold war between abortion advocates and pro-life pregnancy centers in Connecticut.
In 2019, for instance, NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut tweeted about a MobileCare vehicle in Hartford operated by Caring Families Pregnancy Services, calling it a “sketchy van” and labeling it under the banner “Stranger Danger.” In June 2018, the organization tweeted a photo of the van, which advertises free ultrasound images onsite, calling it “one of these fake clinics.”
Bradley has documented fake reviews of crisis-pregnancy centers published online by abortion supporters.
The competition plays out nationally, too.
An abortion-friendly report issued in October 2021 found that there were more than three times as many crisis-pregnancy centers in the United States in 2020 as there were abortion facilities and that the number of abortion centers has decreased sharply during the last 40 years.
In 1978, there were 2,749 abortion businesses. In 2020, there were 780, a drop of about 70%, according to Designed to Deceive: A Study of the Crisis Pregnancy Center Industry in Nine States, issued by The Alliance, which supports what it calls “Gender Justice” and “Reproductive Freedom & Justice” at the state level, among other things.
There were 2,527 crisis-pregnancy centers in the country in 2020, according to the report.
The pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute released a report estimating that crisis-pregnancy centers in the United States in 2017 consulted with more than 880,000 new clients. Such centers provided about 400,000 free ultrasounds that year, according to A Half Century of Hope: A Legacy of Life & Love.
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California state statute that required crisis-pregnancy centers to post a notice inside their facility advising visitors of the availability of abortion elsewhere and stating that the center was unlicensed by the state. The court found that the statute “unduly burdens protected speech.” The case was not directly about advertising, however.
Several cities in the United States have enacted ordinances restricting crisis-pregnancy centers, including Hartford in 2017.
The new Connecticut state statute is based on a 2011 ordinance passed by the San Francisco board of supervisors, which was upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and allowed to stand by the U.S. Supreme Court (which declined to hear an appeal) in June 2018, before the additions of Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the high court.
The Connecticut case could eventually lead the federal Supreme Court to reconsider hearing an appeal on this topic.
Legislative Floor Fight
The Connecticut House of Representatives debated the deceptive-advertising bill for more than eight hours on May 19, 2021, before approving it. The Senate had already approved it. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats. Gov. Ned Lamont, also a Democrat, signed the bill into law, calling abortion “a God-given right.”
Opponents of the bill envisioned dark days ahead for crisis-pregnancy centers. They argued that a mere policy disagreement could land crisis-pregnancy centers in court, at great cost that they can’t recover, even if they win.
“These centers could be put right out of business with just simple complaints,” said state Rep. John Piscopo, R-Thomaston.
Another legislator, state Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien-Norwalk, said she supports legal abortion and has since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, but said that she finds the reasoning of the crisis-pregnancy centers bill offensive.
Wood said women can easily figure out the difference between a crisis-pregnancy center and an abortion facility, and that, “when they walk into a pregnancy center, they know they’re not going to get abortion counseling.”
“I just think this legislation makes it sound as if women are incapable of figuring this out for themselves, and this is what makes me — I want to say angry — about this legislation. I think it says to women, ‘You can’t figure this out.’ Yes, you can. You absolutely can. … So I think this creating a narrative of victimhood is wrong, and it’s the wrong direction,” Wood said.
The debate led state Rep. Aimee Berger-Girvalo, D-Ridgefield, to describe her experience getting an abortion when she was 18 and unmarried. She said she was confronted by aggressive anti-abortion protesters outside the abortion business.
She acknowledged that the incident doesn’t concern a crisis-pregnancy center or advertising. But she suggested it might help explain why no one has ever filed a complaint with a state agency against a crisis-pregnancy center.
Pro-life pregnancy-center officials counter they offer kind and nonjudgmental services that give women in a tough situation options they might not otherwise have.
Bradley, who runs the pregnancy center in Willimantic, said in a telephone interview that he sees the deceptive-advertising law as promoting abortion by trying to limit competition with it.
“It’s really important for a client who’s considering all her options to consider all her options. And that’s something we’re able to provide at pregnancy centers,” Bradley said.
‘Raw Political Power Play’
Supporters of legal abortion dominate all branches of the state government in Connecticut. In 1990, the state legislature passed a statute codifying Roe v. Wade at the state level.
Instead of fighting abortion at the government level, many pro-lifers have thrown their energy into pregnancy centers, to try to persuade women not to have abortions and help them care for babies or give them up for adoption.
Some say it’s working. The number of abortions in Connecticut dropped about 31% (from 13,348 to 9,202) between 2010 and 2019, according to the Connecticut Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s bishops.
Those numbers help explain why abortion-supporting state officials are taking on pregnancy centers, said Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, an advocacy organization that opposes the deceptive-advertising bill.
“It was just a raw political power play and nothing else,” Wolfgang said in a telephone interview. “They have all the power, politically, in the state of Connecticut. So they use that power to take out the competition. Pro-life pregnancy centers are the competition for abortion clinics. And they’re winning, even in Connecticut.”