Crisis Pregnancy Center in BaltimoreBALTIMORE (WOMENSENEWS)–Alexa Cole, an organizer for pro-choice NARAL California, watched closely as Maryland counterparts shepherded a first of its kind bill through the Baltimore City Council.

The bill requires the four crisis pregnancy centers located in the city to post disclaimers that clarify what they don’t do: provide or refer for abortions or birth control.

The bill, which passed the majority-Catholic City Council by a vote of 12 to 3 on Nov. 23 as a truth-in-advertising, patient protection measure, levies a $150 fine if the centers haven’t posted disclosures by the end of a 10-day warning period.

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who is pro-choice, has not yet decided whether she’ll sign the bill into law, her spokesperson told Women’s eNews earlier this week. In an unrelated twist, the mayor was found guilty of embezzlement yesterday. If Dixon is removed from office, Baltimore City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake–who happens to be the bill’s primary sponsor–will take her place. Rawlings-Blake’s spokesperson could not be reached for comment about how this change may impact the bill.

Opponents say any legal challenges would wait until after the bill becomes law.

Forty miles away in Montgomery County, Md., the county council is scheduled to debate a similar bill on Dec. 10.

A Course to Follow

Cole, who works in San Francisco, said pro-choice advocates on the West Coast are hoping to follow suit.

"I think here in California when we look at their model we’re excited and curious as to how we can use the model in our own state," she told Women’s eNews.

NARAL and Planed Parenthood branches in California, Oregon and Texas are in the beginning stages of such campaigns.

They’re proceeding with caution, though, because similar legislative efforts have failed.

This time the strategy, based in part on the Baltimore model, has three parts:

  • Publish in-depth studies to show how the centers mislead women;
  • Partner with sympathetic local lawmakers;
  • Prepare carefully crafted legislation for 2011.

Most crisis pregnancy centers–there are 4,000 nationwide according to the National Abortion Federation–are run by anti-choice, religious organizations.

Over the past decade, crisis pregnancy centers have spread with help from public funding from state and federal legislators.

NARAL launched the Maryland campaign in January 2008 with a report on the state’s 50 crisis pregnancy centers.

The report concluded that women who visited these centers were "given wildly inaccurate" information about health risks associated with abortion "and informed only about the joys of parenting and adoption."

For example, at one center, a staff member gave an investigator, posing as a client, a pair of hand-knitted baby booties.

Legislation Addresses Issue

NARAL then teamed up with Planned Parenthood to present their findings to Rawlings-Blake, who is solidly pro-choice. Rawlings-Blake agreed to craft legislation addressing the issue.

Mark Graber, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said that the bill’s language avoids freedom-of-speech violations. Graber said that in commercial advertising "you have no right to speech that might be misleading." He said the disclosure required for the pregnancy centers is akin to government-mandated warning labels on cigarette boxes.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, which fought the bill, said in an e-mail statement to Women’s eNews that the centers were unfairly targeted and that the nation’s oldest pregnancy center, Baltimore’s Center for Pregnancy Concerns, founded in 1980, "never had a complaint filed against it."

In California, NARAL’s Cole said her organization is awaiting state approval to conduct a report on its crisis pregnancy centers. The group aims to introduce legislation to regulate the centers in 2011 and Cole says they’ve secured the backing of a few state senators she declined to name.

In Oregon, pro-choice activists hope 2011 will also be the year for them to gain regulatory legislation introduced targeting that state’s crisis pregnancy centers.

"We have several legislators who back us up," said Laura Taylor, political and field director for NARAL’s Oregon office. "We just need to come up with a piece of legislation." Taylor said Baltimore’s bill offers a model.

Texas in Tougher Spot

Pro-choice organizations in Texas are in a tougher spot due to an anti-choice legislature. Still, Lesley Ramsey, Planned Parenthood’s chief lobbyist in Texas, said that the Baltimore bill might work in Austin, a potentially receptive city for what she called progressive policy.

Elizabeth Nash, a legislative expert for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights organization based in New York and Washington, D.C., said the Baltimore bill and possible activity in Texas, Oregon and California are great ways to test out new approaches to rein in crisis pregnancy centers.

"Traditionally, one way democracy has worked is to use cities and localities as an incubator for new ideas," Nash said.

This sort of incremental approach may be plodding, but Nash pointed out how anti-choice activists have made gains since 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion was part of a woman’s constitutional right to privacy. "So using an incremental strategy on our end might be a good idea too," Nash said.

A 2006 congressional report, prepared for Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, found that 87 percent of the centers investigated gave women false or misleading information about abortion and birth control.

For the study, female investigators called 25 crisis pregnancy centers in 15 states. In eight cases the women were told that abortion causes breast cancer and in seven cases they were warned that abortion could lead to "many miscarriages."

Julia Marsh is a Washington, D.C.-based correspondent covering domestic and foreign affairs for a Japanese newspaper.

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