The New York City Council is trying to target crisis pregnancy centers with legislation that would force New York CPCs to state in all their advertising that they do not offer abortions and that they do not have licensed medical staff on their premises (if in fact they don’t). They would also have to post similar signs at their offices.
This is a case of the strong trying to oppress the weak, as matters of abortion always are. But judging by Tuesday’s hearing before the council’s Women’s Issues Committee, the bill’s advocates may not be as strong as they thought, and the weak not as weak as they imagined.
Council member Jessica Lappin, the moving force behind the bill, opened the hearings by stating that the bill is about “truth in advertising.” But Chris Slattery, president of the CPC Expectant Mother Care, explained that his clinics have only ever run ads promising “Free Abortion Alternatives,” “Free Confidential Options Counseling,” and “Free Pregnancy Tests,” all of which they provide. So on what basis can they be accused of false advertising?
Some advocates of the bill testified that the centers “look just like a doctor’s office” (they don’t); others said that the staff wear scrubs to look like medical professionals (they don’t; the licensed and certified ultrasound techs in some clinics do, as do the doctors who work part-time in some clinics). Silliest of all, one person testified that “‘EMC’ sounds very medical.” The NARAL report “She Said Abortion Could Cause Breast Cancer” was cited, but given that the organization once known as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws got its start with fabricated propaganda and invented statistics about the number of back-alley abortions performed in the 1960s, their ability to produce an objective, unbiased report on CPCs is something worth thinking about.
And if you’re wondering about the bill’s constitutionality, you’re not the only one. The law would compel speech, regulate speech on the basis of content, and regulate speech on the basis of viewpoint — and for those three reasons, according to the American Center for Law and Justice (which is representing EMC, Life Center of New York-Brooklyn, and Heartbeat International), the law violates the First Amendment and will not stand up to scrutiny.
During the first panel called to give testimony, Council Member Dan Halloran asked Fran Freedman of the Department of Consumer Affairs (a supporter of the bill) whether she was aware of any other instance in which speech was mandated when no commercial transaction was made. She did not. Apparently, regulating the speech of non-profit social-service organizations is not part of the portfolio of the Department of Consumer Affairs. But perhaps it will be.
Halloran, who is concerned about the bill for scope-of-government reasons, pressed Freedman and her co-panelist, Dr. Susan Blank of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, on the “truth in advertising” contention. Did they honestly think that anyone would be confused about what an organization called Bridge to Life, the Sisters of Life, or Life Center does? Both officials averred that indeed, people would, since not everyone is well-versed in the vocabulary of the culture war. That is, Blank and Freedman believe that a reasonable person might assume that an organization called the Sisters of Life performs abortions.
The councilman then asked whether a person might also think an organization called Planned Parenthood focuses its efforts on assisting women who choose parenthood. No, said Blank and Freedman, a reasonable person would not assume that an organization called Planned Parenthood is primarily concerned with parenthood.
But the most damning testimony against the law was given by a young lady who was confused by the name “Planned Parenthood,” which led her to have a very strange experience just last week. The address 44 Court Street in Brooklyn is home to EMC, Planned Parenthood, and Dr. Emily’s Abortion Clinic. Twenty-eight weeks pregnant and happily so, but a little “financially strapped,” the young lady went to 44 Court Street looking for an organization that had assisted a friend of hers a few years earlier. She couldn’t remember the name of the organization, just the address. What she wanted was a car seat, since you’re not allowed to leave the hospital without one. Looking at the directory in the lobby, she saw Planned Parenthood and assumed that it must be the organization she was looking for. But when she went inside and explained her situation, she was told that they could not help her get a car seat, but that since she was financially strapped, she could sign documents indicating that she was under psychological stress and get a medical waiver for a late-term abortion. (Abortion is legal only up to the 24th week of pregnancy, even in New York, except to preserve the life or health of the mother).
This young lady was shocked and distressed by Planned Parenthood’s outside-the-box solution to her need for a car seat. She did not want an abortion; she wanted her baby — and a hospital-required car seat. She eventually found her way to EMC and received the help she actually needed and wanted.
Speaking of Planned Parenthood: Their testifying representative was unable to say how many abortions occur in New York each year, or even the number of abortions they themselves perform in the city. Nor could Doctor Blank: She noted that 60 percent of pregnancies in New York are unplanned but, when questioned, did not know how many pregnancies that 60 percent entailed. It’s surprising that an official from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sent to testify in favor of legislation concerning organizations that offer alternatives to abortion would turn out to be unaware of the number of abortions that take place in the city. For Dr. Blank’s information, in New York City in 2008 there were 229,436 reported pregnancies, 127,680 live births, 89,469 abortions, and 12,287 miscarriages. Forty-one percent of all pregnancies in New York ended in abortion.
As I mentioned, Chris Slattery of EMC also testified. Council members seemed quite surprised to discover during questioning that EMC does in fact offer prenatal care to women in several of its centers, through partnerships with medical professionals. An obstetrician is in EMC’s Brooklyn office one day a week; the Queens office has a similar arrangement. EMC also has several centers located inside medical clinics which can provide prenatal care in the first trimester to women who decide to keep their babies. Another location is in an obstetrician’s office in Manhattan. Some centers have referral relationships with medical providers. And Dr. Anne Mielnik of the Gianna Catholic Healthcare Center for Women makes herself available to all the CPCs in the city to see women who are in need of relatively urgent medical care and have nowhere else to go, often free of charge.
What came into light through the testimony of the dedicated staff and leaders of the CPCs and other pro-life organizations in the city was a picture of a vibrant community at the service of the city’s most disadvantaged women, which strives with very limited resources to meet their material, spiritual, and medical needs as best they can. CPCs are the heart of a well-developed and well-connected network of care that includes pro-life physicians, obstetricians, and maternity homes.
If we were in Virginia, perhaps this committee would be holding hearings on a resolution in support of CPCs and their work. But alas, we are in New York.
— Greg Pfundstein is executive director of the Chiaroscuro Foundation.