Local regulations targeting pro-life pregnancy centers suggest new strategy

Duchy Trachtenberg speaks at an Oct. 2007 news conference about legislation that would outlaw discrimination against trans gender people.
Duchy Trachtenberg speaks at an Oct. 2007 news conference about legislation that would outlaw discrimination against trans gender people.

.- Critics have accused proposed municipal and county legislation in Maryland of singling out pro-life pregnancy resource centers with regulations critics say are intended to harass and discredit the charities. The laws could be part of a new strategy that uses local lawmakers, rather than state or national legislators.

The concerns center upon two proposed laws for the city of Baltimore and Montgomery County.

The Montgomery County proposal would require pregnancy resource centers to provide to clients a written disclaimer in English and Spanish saying that the information that the pregnancy center provides is “not intended to be medical advice or to establish a doctor-patient relationship.” The disclaimer would also say the client should consult with a health care provider before proceeding on “a course of action regarding the client’s pregnancy.”

Violation of the law would be punished as a Class A civil violation, with fines of up to $500 for a first-time violation and up to $750 per day for repeat violations. The law will be voted upon in December.

“The bill singles out pregnancy resource centers only because of their pro-life mission,” the Maryland Catholic Conference said in a press release. “If approved, the Montgomery County regulation would impose government-compelled speech on a non-profit organization that does not receive government funding simply because the organization declines to provide or refer for abortion.”

One of the Montgomery County Council members sponsoring the bill, Duchy Trachtenberg, is a past president of Maryland National Organization for Women.

She also served as an advisor on “women’s issues” to Howard Dean during his 2004 effort to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. Dean, a former governor of Vermont, was chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009.

Similar legislation before the Baltimore City Council requires pregnancy centers to provide a list of services they do not provide, like abortion and contraception, or face a daily fine.

The Conference reports that the regulation does not apply to “family planning” clinics, which are funded by the county, or to abortion clinics.

The city bill has passed committee and will be voted upon by the full city council on Nov. 16.

CNA spoke about the proposals in a Thursday interview with Mary Sullivan, Communications Director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

She characterized the legislation as a bill promoted by NARAL and Planned Parenthood to “single out pro-life charities for harassment in an attempt to discredit them.”

“Just imagine being a vulnerable woman in need. You don’t have a lot of material resources and you may have been abandoned by your support system. You’re going to one of these charitable organizations and you’re being told, essentially, ‘we’re not the people you should come to, we’re unreliable.’”

Fines punishing violation of the laws would also burden the privately-funded charities, she said.

Sullivan told CNA that in 2008 a bill was filed in the Maryland Legislature that would have required pregnancy centers that don’t provide or refer for abortions or contraceptives to tell clients that the center is not required to provide them with “factually accurate” information.

The proposal never made it out of committee.

The law before the Baltimore City Council was filed in Oct. 2009, Sullivan reported, charging that supporters are “shopping the bill around” to local jurisdictions.

She said NARAL’s claims that pregnancy centers mislead women or provide them with inaccurate information are based on their own investigation in which they sent interns into pregnancy centers to find out information.

“Unfortunately some local lawmakers are considering that investigation to be a reliable source of information,” added Sullivan. “In fact it’s not. The only reliable sources are the actual women served by these centers. All of these women say they received excellent, competent care.”

In hearings for the proposals NARAL and Planned Parenthood were unable to provide “a single real woman” who claimed to have been misled, she reported.

Noting that Montgomery County itself is adjacent to Washington, D.C., CNA asked Sullivan about the possible national implications of these efforts. Sullivan replied that she understands similar legislation has been introduced in other states.

While not identical, the bills all intend to discredit the centers, she charged.

To Sullivan’s knowledge, the other attempts were made at the state level. The Maryland proposals mark the first attempts at local legislation of pregnancy resource centers.

She noted that Planned Parenthood and NARAL have promoted the legislation on their websites and have encouraged their supporters to back the measures.

“If they’re successful here they will try in other places, certainly,” Sullivan told CNA.