Tuesday, 18 January 2022
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CT pregnancy help center challenges 'gag' rule in federal lawsuit Pregnancy Support Center of Southeastern CT Facebook

CT pregnancy help center challenges 'gag' rule in federal lawsuit

A pro-life pregnancy help center in Connecticut is challenging a state law in federal court that bans the free exercise of its mission unless it agrees to perform or refer for abortion.

Connecticut pregnancy help centers (PHCs) are facing an ongoing battle with a 2021 law that unfairly targets them and restricts their speech.

The law, Public Act No. 21-17, was proposed in Senate Bill No. 835 and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont in May of this year. It came into effect July 1, 2021. A nearly identical version of this bill was proposed back in 2019 and never got through the legislature to become law. 

The major section which is the cause of concern for PHCs is: 

“No limited services pregnancy center, with the intent to perform a pregnancy-related service, shall make or disseminate before the public, or cause to be made or disseminated before the public...any statement concerning any pregnancy-related service or the provision of any pregnancy-related service that is deceptive, whether by statement or omission, and that a limited services pregnancy center knows or reasonably should know to be deceptive.”

The law defines a “limited services pregnancy center” as a “pregnancy services center that does not directly provide, or provide referrals for, abortions or emergency contraception.” 

This definition obviously targets PHCs. 

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Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center of Southeastern Connecticut (Care Net SECT) filed suit in October with the assistance of legal non-profit Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) so that it could continue providing vital services to women without fear of discrimination based on the center’s pro-life beliefs.

Other pregnancy-related organizations, such as a Planned Parenthood that provide or refer for abortion, would not be considered a “limited services pregnancy center” even if they did not provide other pregnancy services such as ultrasounds, pelvic exams, prenatal care, material aid for baby supplies, or adoption referrals. In fact, a location that only offers abortions could be considered a normal “pregnancy services center” under this law. 

Doesn’t it seem strange that a licensed OB/GYN’s practice offering prenatal care throughout a woman’s pregnancy could fall under being a “limited services pregnancy center” if the doctor did not provide or refer for abortions, but an abortion provider who did not provide or refer for prenatal care would be a normal “pregnancy services center”? 

Including only services for preventing or terminating a pregnancy as the benchmarks for what constitutes a normal, full-service “pregnancy services center” seems a bit ironic, to say the very least. 

This law frames abortion as an absolute necessity for healthcare relating to pregnancy, placing it above legitimate medical services such as pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and STI testing, for example. This definition clarifies the purpose of the law: to target pro-life PHCs and either silence their advertising or require them to refer for abortion or emergency contraception in order to continue advertising their services.

Pro-choice advocates rejoiced over this law passing. 

Mark Kellner for The Washington Times reported,

“It must be noted that in addition to the statute, Connecticut has several powerful, well-run and effective reproductive rights organizations, including NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut and Planned Parenthood. These and other advocacy groups partnered with Connecticut legislators this past session to pass Public Act 21-17: An Act Concerning Deceptive Advertising Practices of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers, which prevents so-called ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ from dishonest practices that prey upon vulnerable people. It’s another example of the power of state legislatures to protect the rights of all citizens.”

This quote also gives away the real intent of the law. While the language used in the Act does not mention “crisis pregnancy centers,” it is obvious to anyone reading it, including pro-choice people like Kellner, exactly who is being targeted with this law. Pro-choice activists would not be so celebratory if they were subjected to the same regulations this law outlines for PHCs.

Now, if the law had absolutely any basis in reality, then perhaps it would not be so bad. However, in the media coverage and hearings for the past and present versions of the bill, many accusations of deception from PHCs were asserted — but no evidence was presented which actually showed any deceptive tactics being used. 

For the 2019 version of the bill, then-sponsor and Representative Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, asserted that there were PHCs in Connecticut that “operate with the appearance of a medical facility and advertise to people as though they offer abortion and emergency contraception, when they are actually opposed to these services.” 

But in fact, many PHCs are associated with Heartbeat International, Care Net, and/or NIFLA, and are therefore held to a Commitment of Care and Competence that each national organization requires affiliates to follow. And furthermore, many PHCs state clearly right on their website what services they do and do not offer; you don’t even have to guess or call them to find out.

For a hearing for the current law, Representative Jillian Gilchrest (a sponsor of Senate Bill 835) made several admissions which should make us further question the legitimacy of the law. First, she pointed out the lack of evidence for even coming up with the law in the first place, stating:

“there are no complaints [against any pregnancy center] through the Department of Consumer Protection,” and “we have not had complaints in the state of Connecticut through our state agencies.” 

She also admitted that the law would apply to regulating the speech of volunteers who were not even in the pregnancy center.

This lack of evidence and the unfair application of law are just two of many reasons why the Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center of Southeastern Connecticut with the help of ADF, filed the Oct. 12 lawsuit against Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, the person who could enforce the law. 

Tweet This: A Connecticut law targeting pregnancy help centers for not performing or referring for abortion is being challenged in federal court

Some of the other strong concerns are that the language of the Act is so vague concerning what is considered “deceptive” that even something as simple as the phrase, “Pregnant? Need help?” could not be used in advertising. That is, it might lead people to believe the PHC provides abortions when it does not. And there is good reason for this concern. AG Tong gave a similar example himself when asked in a bill hearing what could be considered “deceptive” advertising:

“Defendant Tong answered that the statement, ‘Are you pregnant? Need help with your pregnancy? Do you want abortion-related counseling?’ is a ‘pretty clear’ example, if a pregnancy center does not perform or refer for abortions, because women are ‘expecting to have the full-range of options available to them … including termination of pregnancy.’”

This means Care Net SECT would be severely limited in how they could advertise their services. When the law went into effect, they did comply and have not advertised with phrasing such as, “Are you pregnant? Need help with your pregnancy? Do you want abortion-related counseling?” for fear of being taken to court by AG Tong over “deceptive” advertising.

In a February 2021 hearing on the bill, a witness gave this example from the Care Net SECT website as evidence of “specific deceptive advertising”:

“Even if your pregnancy was planned, you may be wondering if you should continue your pregnancy or if an abortion or the abortion pill is a safe option for you. We can help. If you or someone you know is facing a pregnancy decision right now, give us a call or send us a message today.” 

The witness honestly thought they had a point there.

In what universe could offering help and counseling be reasonably construed as a solid promise to provide abortion or a direct advertisement for abortion services? 

Especially given that if you spend about two seconds actually reading their website, you’ll find that at the bottom of every page, they clearly spell out, “Care Net SECT does not provide or refer for terminations or emergency contraception.” 

Additionally, abortion and emergency contraception are never advertised as a service they provide on their website; the only things they advertise in connection to those services are “information,” “consultations,” and other relevant medical services a woman may want to have done before making a pregnancy decision. 

How is that deceptive in any way? It sounds like they are very up-front about what they specifically cannot and will not provide. 

I understand being concerned about false advertising. However, as the lawsuit points out, there is already a law in place that protects consumers from false advertising (Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act). There is no need for a specific law targeting only pro-life PHCs for the purpose of silencing the advertising of their life-affirming services. 

This law is honestly insulting. 

Anyone seeing the Google ads and/or the Care Net SECT website who walks away thinking, “Women will be duped into thinking they provide abortion! We must stop them!” has a pretty low view of women’s reading comprehension.

Another specific, glaring concern with the law pointed out in the lawsuit is that it allows the State to recoup legal costs of suing a PHC in violation of the law if the State wins. The State can collect both civil penalties ($50-500 per violation) and “reasonable attorney's fees and costs.” 

However, if the State were to lose the case and the PHC was not found to be deceptive, there is no allowance for the PHC who was charged to recoup any “reasonable attorney's fees and costs”! 

The Care Net SECT/ADF lawsuit asks the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut to issue an injunction to prevent the law from applying to them as well as declare the Act to be unconstitutional. 

Petra

A Kansas City native who transplanted to Columbus, OH, in 2014 to attend graduate school at Ohio State University, Petra has her M.S. in chemistry and loves to teach chemistry and biochemistry while geeking out on science-related news. Writer and Editor for the Human Defense Initiative, she is passionate about the pro-life movement and uses her science education and teaching skills to speak up for the most vulnerable humans among us. Follow her on Twitter at @StupidRock.

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