Connecticut lawmakers are pressing ahead with legislation they say will clamp down on "deceptive advertising" by pregnancy crisis centers, despite legal setbacks experienced elsewhere in the U.S. with similar laws.
Joe Aresimowicz, the Democratic speaker of the house, said that after speaking to senior staff, he is "comfortable with moving forward" with the bill awaiting action in the House of Representatives. He predicted the legislation could come up for a vote in May. The session ends June 5.
The bill would prohibit the typically faith-based centers from making false or misleading statements about services they provide, while allowing the Connecticut attorney general to seek a court order to stop such deceptive advertising.
Critics contend the clinics harmfully mislead patients when they're seeking medical care and are designed to discourage women from seeking abortions, often by providing inaccurate information or by using delay tactics.
Supporters, however, argue the pregnancy centers provide important counseling and medical services, including ultrasounds and pregnancy tests at some locations, and do not try to persuade women against having abortions. They argue that Connecticut already has laws on the books regulating deceptive practices and that this bill is unnecessary.
The pregnancy centers have become a flashpoint in the national debate over abortion rights. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law, the first of its kind in the nation to require such centers to provide information about access to birth control and abortion. The ruling was seen as a blow to abortion-rights supporters, who saw the law in California and other states as a step toward beating back the national movement against abortion.
Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the socially conservative Family Institute of Connecticut, questioned why the Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives want to proceed with legislation that would likely lead to costly litigation and possibly a legal settlement.
"Other jurisdictions have had to pay huge fines to pregnancy centers after losing similar cases, but the House leadership doesn't care," he said.
Last September, the city of Baltimore agreed to pay $1.1 million in attorney's fees to a Christian-based health organization that successfully challenged an ordinance requiring pregnancy centers to notify patients if they don't offer abortion or birth control services. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in January 2018 that the ordinance unconstitutionally compelled speech by Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns Inc., which opposes abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court had refused without comment to hear Baltimore's appeal.
In February, the state of Hawaii agreed to pay more than $60,000 to resolve two federal lawsuits that had challenged a state law requiring the pregnancy centers to inform women about contraception and other family planning services. During that same month, a federal court ordered the state of California to pay three pregnancy centers $399,000 to cover their legal fees.
Meanwhile, the city of Hartford is facing legal action over its ordinance concerning pregnancy centers, which took effect in October 2018. The rule requires such centers to display signs at every public entrance, in English and Spanish, that state the facility does not have a licensed medical provider on site to provide services.
Earlier this month, the nonprofit Caring Families Pregnancy Services, based in Windham, filed a federal lawsuit against Connecticut's capital city, seeking an injunction to stop Hartford's ordinance.
Democratic House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, of Hartford, said Connecticut's bill is crucial considering that communities like his are being "forced to defend a constitutional claim" that local ordinances regulating pregnancy centers violate free speech and religious freedom rights. A similar bill died in committee last year.
"If you can do it by state law and let the Attorney General's Office defend that lawsuit, I think it's the right way to do it," said Ritter, an attorney who contends his city's ordinance is constitutional.
Wolfgang said he's not aware of any Connecticut community besides Hartford having such an ordinance. There are 24 pregnancy clinics in the state. Wolfgang questions the accusations of advertising, arguing the legislation is more about declining rates of abortion.
"The abortion industry wants to use the heavy hand of government to take out the competition," he said. "They want to use the government to essentially regulate their competitors out of business. That's what this is really all about."
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