The Baltimore City Council on Monday night approved regulations that would require pregnancy centers to post notices that they do not offer abortions or birth-control referrals. Critics said the legislation is part of a national strategy that aims to discredit the centers and drags the non-political charities into the political arena.
The regulation is thought to be the first of its kind in the U.S., the Los Angeles Times reports. Opponents have charged that it singles out pregnancy resource centers because of their pro-life mission. The centers provide counseling, clothing and food for expectant mothers.
Jeff Meister, Director of Administration and Legislation at Maryland Right to Life, told CNA in a Wednesday interview that his organization was “disappointed” about the message the legislation sends.
“We’re upset about the fact that for the first time in the entire United States an elected body chose to vote, in essence, to condemn pregnancy centers, and to send the message that they lie to and deceive women.
“There is no evidence proving that point, and all evidence is to the contrary."
“Numerous other states and elected bodies have rejected this legislation. But the Baltimore City Council chose to enact it without a lot of evidence backing their claims.”
The bill would affect four pregnancy centers in the city by requiring counseling centers to post signs in English or Spanish saying that they do not “provide or make referrals for abortion or birth-control services.”
If inspectors find no such announcement visible, the center would have 10 days to post a notice or face a $150 fine, the Los Angeles Times says.
Another critic of the proposed law was Carol A. Clews, executive director of the pro-life Center for Pregnancy Concerns, which has operated in Baltimore for 30 years.
"The passage of this piece of legislation may serve as serious encouragement to those who would like to see our organizations saddled with more laws and restrictions,” she said, adding that the crisis pregnancy centers are “very upfront” about what services they do and do not provide.
She reported that most clients have already decided to give birth to their babies but need help with utility bills, job referrals, maternity clothes or prenatal vitamins.
According to the Los Angeles Times, City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the law’s sponsor, characterized the vote as a victory for women’s well-being.
"It's a step toward making sure that women have the information they need to make the right decision for their health and their future," she said.
Rawlings-Blake cited an investigation by an advocacy group which claimed that women have been misled at pregnancy centers.
Planned Parenthood of Maryland also backed the law.
The bill passed the council by a 12-3 vote on Monday and must be approved by Mayor Sheila Dixon. Though an abortion supporter, she has not stated her position on the legislation.
In a Nov. 12 interview with CNA, Mary Sullivan, Communications Director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, reported that the pro-abortion group NARAL sent interns into Baltimore pregnancy centers to gather information used in hearings for the bill.
Sullivan questioned the reliability of that information.
“The only reliable sources are the actual women served by these centers. All of these women say they received excellent, competent care,” she added, saying backers of the proposal were unable to find a real client who claimed to have been misled.
Mary Ellen Russell, Executive Director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, told CNA in a Wednesday phone conversation that the Conference is “very concerned” about the precedent the legislation is setting.
“We defeated similar legislation at the state level two years ago. We’ll continue to do everything in our power to forestall other jurisdictions in our state from following the example of targeting pro-life charities that support women.”
Maryland Right to Life’s Jeff Meister told CNA on Wednesday that the proposed legislation is part of a national strategy, pointing to similar legislation introduced in the Maryland General Assembly, in other states and in the U.S. Congress.
There the proposals were “soundly rejected,” he reported. This prompted pro-abortion lobbying groups to go to local jurisdictions “where they have more support.”
“There is a national strategy to target pro-life pregnancy centers and that strategy alters as they meet challenges,” he charged.
Meister noted the main proponents of the bill, like NARAL and Planned Parenthood, and opponents like Maryland Right to Life are all lobbying organizations.
“We’re used to dealing with the politics of abortion,” he explained.
“Now pro-life pregnancy centers, they’re simply charities,” Meister continued. “It’s really unfortunate that charities, with the great work that they’re doing serving women and families, have to go to a legislative body that they’re probably not familiar with and then spend time out of their own day simply to defend their own integrity.
“It’s unfortunate that charities have to be dragged into the political arena.”
The Baltimore Sun reported that the Catholic Archdiocese of Maryland gives $100,000 a year to pregnancy centers and gives the Center for Pregnancy Concerns free use of space at two churches.
Archbishop of Baltimore Edwin F. O’Brien has said the archdiocese is prepared “legally to address” the proposed regulations.
"This is clearly a first step, and they're using Baltimore as a steppingstone, trying to manipulate our legislature into doing something that no other assembly has done in the United States," he told the Baltimore Times. "It's unheard of, and, I think, irresponsible."
"When Planned Parenthood puts out in their literature on their doorstep that they do not provide baby formula and care for pregnant women to find homes for the babies, when they're asked to do that, we can come to some kind of compromise on what this city is expecting of us,” he said.
Maryland’s Montgomery County Council is also considering legislation that would require pro-life centers to post disclaimers or face fines. The proposed law, which Meister said was “much tougher” than the Baltimore proposal, will be a topic of a Dec. 1 hearing.