Ahead of a new poll showing overwhelming support for legalized abortion among Massachusetts residents, several cities in the state have taken steps to fine pro-life pregnancy centers if they engage in “deceptive” advertising practices.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released this week said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Forty-eight percent of respondents said abortion should be legal in all cases, while another 30% said it should be legal in most cases.

The poll results come on the heels of municipal ordinances enacted in Cambridge and Somerville, located north of Boston, to issue fines of up to $300 for every instance of “deceptive” advertising by local pregnancy clinics that do not perform abortions or refer clients to those that do perform them. Neither measure defines what constitutes “deceptive” advertising.

In Cambridge, the ordinance contains additional language that prohibits its city manager from issuing licenses or permits to pro-life pregnancy centers that wish to operate within city limits.

According to crisispregnancycentermap.com, a project by two professors at the University of Georgia, there are no pro-life pregnancy centers in either Somerville or Cambridge.

A third city in the state, Worcester, is drafting an ordinance modeled after those in Somerville and Cambridge, directed at so-called “limited services pregnancy centers.” Meanwhile, the city council in East Hampton, located in southwestern Massachusetts, is scheduled to consider a similar ordinance at its next meeting on Aug. 3.

Worcester’s ordinance could potentially impact two existing pro-life pregnancy centers — Problem Pregnancy and Clearway Clinic, both of which were vandalized in early July. Neither clinic responded to CNA’s request for comment.

Worcester city council member Kathleen Toomey told CNA Monday that she was one of five members to vote against initiating the ordinance. Six voted for it.

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Toomey criticized what she considers unfair language in the order. She said the ordinance would unjustly and negatively impact pro-life pregnancy centers because of some city council members’ opposition to the pro-life mission. Toomey also questioned why the local Planned Parenthood shouldn’t be required to refer patients to pro-life pregnancy centers for counseling.

Federal lawsuit in Connecticut

The Massachusetts ordinances are similar to a state law Connecticut’s General Assembly passed in May 2021. That legislation led to a federal lawsuit filed by the religious freedom law firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on behalf of the pro-life Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center in New London, Connecticut.

The Connecticut law gives the state’s attorney general the authority to bring court action against pro-life clinics that refuse to cease or change their “deceptive” advertising. According to a summary, “Among other things, the court can order the center to pay for and disseminate appropriate corrective advertising.”

The pending lawsuit says the state law unfairly singles out pro-life pregnancy centers and is unconstitutional because it aims “not only to inhibit a religious ministry from furthering its mission and message, but also to coerce religious speakers to speak messages about abortion that they conscientiously object to.”

The law’s “lack of definition of ‘pregnancy-related service,’ as well as the open-ended vagueness of the terms ‘deceptive’ and ‘omission,’ exacerbate the Act’s First Amendment problems because its vague terms grant unbridled discretion to Attorney General Tong to ban or punish speech the government opposes and to mandate speech the government supports,” the lawsuit states.

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Mark Lippelmann, senior counsel for Alliance for Defending Freedom. Courtesy of Alliance for Defending Freedom
Mark Lippelmann, senior counsel for Alliance for Defending Freedom. Courtesy of Alliance for Defending Freedom

ADF Senior Counsel Mark Lippelmann told CNA that the Massachusetts ordinances likewise infringe on pro-life clinics’ freedom of speech.

He also took aim at the Cambridge ordinance which prohibits its city manager from issuing licenses or permits to pro-life pregnancy centers that wish to operate within city limits. That section, he said, provides “unequal treatment based on religious beliefs and speech.” 

In Pennsylvania, the city of Pittsburgh also passed an ordinance July 19 aimed at the “deceptive” practices of pro-life pregnancy centers. That ordinance contains identical language to the section of the law in Somerville, Cambridge, and Connecticut, but it defines the term “deceptive advertising.”

In the ordinance, deceptive advertising is defined as “Disparaging the goods, services, or business of another by false or misleading representation of facts;” “Advertising goods or services with intent not to supply reasonably expectable public demand, unless the advertisement discloses a limitation of quantity;” or “Advertising goods or services with intent not to provide or offer them as advertised.”

Lippelmann said Pittsburgh’s definition “is still vague and gives city officials unbridled discretion to punish pregnancy centers for making true statements that the city doesn’t like.”

Patricia Stewart, executive director for Massachusetts Citizens for Life, told CNA that the organization is studying the constitutionality of the ordinances within the Bay State.

In 2021, Massachusetts pro-life pregnancy centers served almost 3,000 women, providing more than 1,500 pregnancy tests and more than 1,200 ultrasounds free of charge, she said.

These centers also distributed over $250,000 worth of free goods last year, including 20,000 packages of diapers and 1,000 packages of baby wipes, Stewart noted.

“They are an essential, yet often overlooked, part of the communities they serve,” she said. “Motivated purely by selfless love and respect for God's gift of life, they continue to assist desperate women in need and their unborn children.”