Crisis Pregnancy Centers In Maryland Fight For Their Right To Mislead Women

Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) have a long history of presenting women with misleading medical information and shame-based conservative propaganda to dissuade them from making their own decisions about having an abortion. CPCs also have a track record of evading city-level regulations that seek to crack down on their misleading advertising, winning court battles on First Amendment grounds so they can continue to use their deceptive marketing tactics against vulnerable pregnant women.

In Maryland, the struggle to effectively regulate CPCs’ deceptive tactics is playing out in full force. After Baltimore passed a law requiring CPCs to disclose that they are not a true alternative to women’s health clinics — since they don’t offer the same range of reproductive services, and are not staffed by medical professionals — a U.S. court overturned the law, siding with anti-abortion activists who claimed the regulation stifled their freedom of speech. And now the same conflict is the subject of a court case in Montgomery Country, where lawyers are defending a county-wide ordinance that requires CPCs to post signs telling women they may want to “consult with a licensed health care provider” since the anti-abortion centers don’t provide medically-licensed staff:

In 2010, the Montgomery County Council approved the law requiring that the centers post the disclaimers “conspicuously” in their waiting rooms. […]

Shortly after the ordinance was passed, one of the pregnancy centers — Centro Tepeyac Silver Spring Women’s Center — filed a lawsuit in county district court, alleging that the law was unconstitutional. In June, a panel of federal judges ruled that the disclaimer violated free-speech rights, and the county appealed.

On Thursday, the county said the signs would be a “minimal” inconvenience to the centers. Moreover, the law protects women from false or misleading information given by some pregnancy centers and was needed to help protect women’s health, the county argued.

They cited a report by NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2008 and a minority congressional report in 2006 that found many pregnancy centers have provided “wildly inaccurate” information about the health effects of abortions.

The only city to successfully institute a similar ordinance is San Francisco, where a judge affirmed that CPCs do not deserve constitutional protections for their misleading advertisements. That ruling stated that “a person of common intelligence could discern” that the regulations aren’t intended to broadly restrict the freedom of speech of CPCs and their employees, but simply act as a mechanism to protect the public from deceitful advertising tactics.

The Montgomery County attorney’s office has yet to decide whether the arguments from the anti-abortion activists will convince them to follow in Baltimore’s footsteps.