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03.23.12 - Every year, tens of thousands of women are lured to crisis pregnancy centers in the U.S. They go having made a difficult decision to have an abortion, believing they will get the help they need. Instead, they are battered with false medical information, distortions of the truth, and blatant propaganda. Too often, they leave traumatized.
Today, the Center for Reproductive Rights is in court intent on stopping crisis pregnancy centers in Baltimore from subjecting women to those deceptive abuses.
It begins with advertising, often the wellspring of chicanery. "These centers advertise on the Internet, in college newspapers, in telephone books saying they provide abortion services or counseling or free pregnancy tests," says Suzanne Sangree, the Chief Solicitor in the city of Baltimore's Law Department who is working with the Center on this case. "Many women, especially young, undereducated women, think they can get help."
But they don't. Women who have made their choice too often find themselves in a setting that is more playhouse than medical office. "These centers are set up to look like clinics," says Sangree. "There's a waiting room, the staff members are dressed in lab coats, and you're ushered into an exam room." At this point, most women are confused. "It might take quite a while to figure out, no, this is not a medical office, and I can't get access to abortion here."
City officials in Baltimore decided this kind of subterfuge was harmful to women. And it didn't stop in the office. Having obtained women's name, address, and home phone number, staff members have been known to call pregnant women saying, "Don't kill your baby."
Baltimore was the first city in the nation to pass legislation requiring these centers to disclose that they neither referred nor offered abortion services. (Austin, TX, Montgomery County, MD, New York City, and San Francisco have since enacted similar measures to curb the deceptive practices of these centers.) The Catholic Archbishop of Baltimore, along with Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc., filed a federal lawsuit and won the first round. The Center is working with Baltimore city officials to reverse that decision and win landmark protections for women from false advertising tactics used across the country-and from the great risks to women's health and well-being that comes with this dishonesty.
The church's claim that the law violates free speech is hollow. This isn't about free speech at all; it's about deception. As Stephanie Toti, a senior staff attorney at the Center, recently told the Nation: "The ordinance does not in any way regulate what kind of services a pregnancy center must offer, nor does it regulate how a pregnancy center may discuss the topics of abortion or birth control with consumers. It merely prevents pregnancy centers from lying to consumers about whether they provide abortion or birth control services."
Those lies can have devastating consequences. Just a few months ago, Jezebel ran a first-person account of a shocking story that—outrageously—happens to too many women across the United States every day.
Today is the next step in a battle to which the Center is fully committed. We won't know for some time if we were successful in this stage, but we do know we will not ease up until women are protected and given the truth to which they have every right.