NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–I was the last to testify.
It was 6:40 p.m. and for more than five hours the women’s issues committee of the New York City Council had listened to testimony about a proposed local law–similar to the one passed in Baltimore last year–regulating crisis pregnancy centers.
Crisis pregnancy centers–or CPCs, as everyone was calling them–are sites run by Christian organizations in the United States and around the world.
Depending on your point of view, the centers either browbeat and trick teens and women into maintaining unwanted pregnancies or they offer vulnerable and frightened teens and women kindness, support and loving care.
Those were the two starkly different versions presented at the hearing about the sites, which can be called "pregnancy resource centers," "pregnancy decision health centers," "pregnancy care centers," "women’s choice network" and sometimes just "pregnancy centers."
If passed, the city law would require the centers to prominently display–in their facilities, on their Web sites and in ads–disclaimers saying they do not provide abortions, provide contraception or have licensed medical personnel available. It would also require centers to keep confidential the information they gather about their clients.
Supporters say the law is needed for several reasons.
City officials have said that the centers can cause a delay in pre-natal care if pregnant women seeking clinical attention go to the centers looking for that.
Pro-choice advocates want the centers to be more clearly marked so they don’t detour women seeking their services. In at least one case, a center had set up shop in the same building and on the same floor as a Planned Parenthood clinic.
At the hearing a social worker for Planned Parenthood said prospective patients were often confused and went to the wrong place–only to be indoctrinated with anti-abortion propaganda.
Text Messages and Intimidation
One witness who supports the bill told the story of a clinic patient who mistakenly sought help at one of these centers. The client said she was unsure whether to go through with the pregnancy. Soon after, she received text messages asking her what she was going to name her baby. Someone from the clinic even showed up at the woman’s workplace to intimidate her into not seeking an abortion, the witness said.
The hearing was unofficially divided into two sections. First came officials and experts invited by the committee to speak. Then came a long line of people–stretching out the door and down the block–who signed up to speak.
The big issue at stake legally is whether the law infringes on freedom of speech. An attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union assured the council that the bill passed the First Amendment test under the government’s ability to require truth in advertising.
Round Two–the one I had been assigned to–began at about 2:30. I sat, listened and watched for what turned out to be four hours.
Some of those determined to be heard included a chaplain at a local Catholic high school, men who operated the centers and their female employees, volunteers and supporters.
Senior staffers of Care Net, based in Lansdowne, Va., were there to represent the largest network with 2,300 affiliated centers and a $7 million annual budget. They emphasized their transparency, the care they provide to needy women and the manner in which they keep their clients’ records confidential.
Most other speakers made non-legal, moral arguments. One attorney, however, did lay out the constitutional challenges to the law, saying governments may not "compel" speech, such as signs.
Opposition Exceeded Those in Favor
Those in favor and those opposed were supposed to take turns, but those opposed to the bill far exceeded those in favor–both in number, emotion and palpable sense of conviction.
During a break, I took a quick look at Care Net’s Web site. It read: "Care Net is committed to expanding access to the life-saving services and support provided by our local centers and to reaching the hurting and broken with the hope of Jesus Christ."
I noticed each and every witness opposing the bill used the word "girl" when referring to the clients they served. Never teens or women. Always girls. The priest, the clinic operators, the staff, the volunteers. This could reflect a core belief that their clients were children, regardless of their ages, in need of protection and strong guidance to make decisions about their fertility and their futures.
This is a large difference from the pro-choice side, which argues that reproductive rights are a critical element of female autonomy and always used the term "pregnant women."
Six and a half hours in, I took my two minutes at the microphone. Based on 10 years of Women’s eNews’ coverage, I told the council that our news reports indicate that allegations about the centers providing misinformation about abortion persist, that many nonetheless receive government funds and most have as their core mission to proselytize fundamentalist, anti-choice Christian doctrine.
Booklet Produced by Anti-Choice Who’s Who
I thanked the council members for being so patient and picked up an informational booklet called "Pregnancy Resource Center Service Report 2009."
It was produced by a consortium of who’s who in anti-choice activism.
One name in particular popped out: the Family Research Council, founded in 1988 by Dr. James Dobson to lobby for such "traditional family values" as abstinence-only education and anti-choice national and international policies, including the global gag rule, which has been used to block funding to maternal health clinics that have any connection whatsoever to abortion services, even counseling.
The 72 pages emphasize the organization’s Christian mission and are replete with personal stories illustrated by photographs of a diverse array of smiling women with lovely babies on their laps.
Two endorsements come from freshly empowered lawmakers: the new Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, and Rep. Heath Shuler, the new head of the "Blue Dog" Democrats in the House. Annual revenues are said to be $200 million or more for the network of 2,300-plus pregnancy care centers, with about 25 percent described as medical centers that provide some pre-natal care but not labor and delivery.
At the end of a long day, it remained an open question whether New York City Council would remain a pro-choice island and approve the bill or wilt under the pressure of conservative religious beliefs so amply demonstrated throughout the hearing. No middle ground appeared to exist.
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Rita Henley Jensen is founder and editor in chief of Women’s eNews.