Representative Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.) has once again introduced in the House her Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women’s Services Act. Maloney is not so committed to truth in advertising as to want to spell out in the bill’s title what kind of services she fears women are being deceived about, but the text of the bill is clearer: It seeks to prohibit deceptive advertising for “abortion services.”
The bill targets crisis-pregnancy centers, which pro-choice advocates have long characterized as places that lure pregnant women with misleading claims of assistance and then trick or shame them, through propaganda and proselytizing, into giving birth to their babies.
Maloney’s bill does not attempt to regulate what kind of information is presented at crisis-pregnancy centers; instead it would prohibit any organization from “advertising with the intent to deceptively create the impression” that it provides abortion if it does not. “Women shouldn’t be deliberately misled or coerced when they seek legitimate medical services,” she said when introducing the bill.
No, they should not. But there are several problems with the bill’s approach. First, it would empower the Federal Trade Commission to enforce the new law. Under the Federal Trade Commission Act, the FTC has the authority to investigate and punish deceptive advertising; Maloney’s bill would extend that authority to cover organizations that are not engaged in trade or commerce. To understand how little sense this makes, consider that deceptive advertising usually involves an attempt to sell someone something under false pretenses for gain. Crisis-pregnancy centers, by contrast, are trying to convince the “customer” that she does not actually want a service that she could purchase elsewhere. There is no transaction and no profit. The FTC is charged with protecting consumers, but in this case, there is no good or service being consumed.
Second, most crisis-pregnancy centers do not claim to offer abortions. When pro-choice journalists and organizations speak of the “deception” practiced by the centers, what they are usually objecting to is the fact that these centers use the euphemisms and deliberate ambiguities of abortion providers’ own advertising against them.
In Charleston, W.Va., for example, Woman’s Choice Pregnancy Resource Center, a pro-life organization, recently moved in next door to Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, an abortion provider. The move was “intentionally meant to confuse women,” fumed Margaret Chapman, the director of a local pro-abortion group. A spokesman for Woman’s Choice denied that, although he said he and his colleagues would be happy to help any woman who wandered in accidentally. “Last time I checked,” he told the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “they haven’t cornered the market on the word ‘choice.’”
From the perspective of Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, it’s the very existence of crisis-pregnancy centers that is a deception, not any particular advertising campaign they undertake. Planned Parenthood warns on its website that though these organizations may appear to be “real health care providers,” they are in fact “fake clinics.” The logic seems to be that it is misleading for crisis-pregnancy centers to pass themselves off in advertisements as offering assistance to women facing unplanned pregnancies because these women would reasonably expect such assistance to include an offer of abortion. But this is a disagreement about the nature of what constitutes legitimate assistance, not a deception. Crisis-pregnancy centers should be free to present their view that abortion is not a moral choice, just as Planned Parenthood is free to tell women that abortion is morally equivalent to adoption and parenting.
A 2010 New York Times piece asks the reader to imagine a scenario in which a pregnant woman who is considering abortion is riding the subway. She looks up and sees an ad for E.M.C. FrontLine Pregnancy Centers that reads “Free abortion alternatives.” This is given as an example of “unclear signage” meant to mislead women — because “the word ‘abortion’ [may have] loomed much larger to them on that subway sign than the word ‘alternatives.’” New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn expressed her opinion that such organizations were “deceiving women purposely.” In order to “compensate for ambiguities,” as the Times put it, Quinn and Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed legislation that would have required crisis-pregnancy centers to prominently post disclosure notices explicitly stating that they did not provide or refer for abortion. A federal judge blocked the law, calling it “offensive to free speech principles” and warning that “the risk of discriminatory enforcement is high.”
Representative Maloney seems to have learned from that example. She has chosen a different method of regulation and professes herself to be ready to “defend crisis centers’ First Amendment rights even though I disagree with their view of abortion.” If she is sincere, she should withdraw her legislation. The risk of discriminatory enforcement is always high when bureaucrats are charged with regulating speech.
— Katherine Connell is an editorial associate at National Review.