The San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave initial approval Tuesday to a new law that would target pregnancy centers in the city that help women find abortion alternatives.
Supervisor Malia Cohen and City Attorney Dennis Herrera have spent months on an ordinance that would, if passed, require the pro-woman centers to disclose whether they are abortion alternatives agencies that, supposedly, don’t provide comprehensive health care. The pair have made erroneous claims that the centers are engaging in misleading counseling and advertising.
They say the legislation came about because of complaints about First Resort, a pregnancy centers that operates locations in San Francisco, Oakland and surrounding areas. The San Francisco Chronicle indicates Herrera sent a letter to First Resort claiming that its advertising methods are misleading by making women believe it does abortions, because they try to compete with abortion centers in purchase links at Google for searches on abortion.
The board initially approved the proposal on a 10-1 vote and Supervisor Malia Cohen, chief sponsor of the legislation told the San Francisco Chronicle that the bill is intended to “protect consumers of pregnancy-related services by prohibiting limited-service pregnancy centers from knowingly disseminating false or misleading advertising information about the services they provide.”
But the two chains of pregnancy centers in the area say the city can expect a lawsuit if the measure receives final approval.
“The proposed ordinance regulates and restricts speech only by persons and organizations the city regards as having ‘antiabortion’ or pro-life views, exempting the rest,” First Resort said in a statement. “This viewpoint and speaker discrimination is a blatant violation of the First Amendment of the United States.”
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd was the lone vote against the proposal and he said abortion backers presented no evidence showing women are misled.
“There has been no testimony, no documentation, no affidavits of any woman seeking service who has been misled. There is nothing in the record documenting that,” he said, according to the newspaper. “What I hear we are doing today is passing a solution in search of a problem.”
During committee consideration of the measure, two members of the Board of Supervisors’ City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee, Supervisors John Avalos and Sean Elsbernd, pointed out how city attorneys have indicated they would have to produce evidence showing the pregnancy centers are misleading in order for the bill to stand up in court. They said the city has produced no such evidence of any false or misleading advertising. “This legislative record here, to me, is empty,” Elsbernd said, according to the Chronicle.
First Resort, on its web site, makes no claim, as Herrera charges, that it does abortions.
“First Resort is a Pregnancy Counseling Women’s Health Clinic. We provide counseling and medical care to women who are making decisions about unplanned pregnancies,” it says. “First Resort’s services are free of charge. Thanks to financial donations; we have been able to provide quality care to our clients at no charge for 25 years! Our focus is on helping women make healthy, well-informed choices in line with their own beliefs and values.”
“We believe in the empowerment of women through informed choices, confidentially, as they weigh all their options. Only you can decide what is best for you. Talk to our counselors for support and empower yourself,” it adds.
First Resort clinics operate under the supervision of two board certified, California-licensed OB-GYN medical doctors. First Resort provides access to an on-site Registered Nurse and trained counselors during all hours of operation in each of its facilities. First Resort offices are staffed by licensed registered nurses 100% of the time during operating hours.
In a statement to the newspaper, First Resort CEO Shari Plunkett challenged Herrera to tour the facility and said, “We look forward to a robust discussion about the appropriateness of this legislation and we urge them not to test the constitutional boundaries of free speech.”
Previously, Cohen admitted to the newspaper that she is working with the California affiliate of NARAL, a national pro-abortion organization, to develop the legislation that would be similar to laws approved in New York City and Baltimore, Maryland and proposed in Austin, Texas. Those measures require pregnancy centers to post misleading signs claiming they are not legitimate medical centers and to tell women that they do not do abortions nor refer for them. City officials in those locations did not approve of corresponding legislation requiring abortion businesses to disclose they do not provide pregnancy resources or support.
The two city officials are basing their actions, according to the newspaper, on a report NARAL generated from visits to Alpha Pregnancy Center and First Resort. The major complaints centered on the scientific information the centers provided to women showing significant problems after an abortion — such as the link to breast cancer or mental health issues, both of which are supported by numerous peer-reviewed studies conducted by researchers and professionals.
NARAL also complained that Alpha was staffed solely by volunteers and is upset that women are allowed to sign forms showing they understand that Alpha is not a medically licensed facility.
First Resort spokeswoman Maria Martinez-Mont told the newspaper that its facilities are licensed by the state and staffed by nurses who can offer ultrasounds and legitimate medical care. Jim Boso, a retired physician who is the center’s medical executive director responded as well.
“It’s common knowledge that we don’t refer people to have an abortion,” Boso said. “Abortion is never the best answer, because it always takes the life of an innocent unborn child. We would like to make abortion unnecessary in the Bay Area.”
The law Baltimore approved attacking pregnancy centers there has already come under criticism and, in January, a federal judge struck down the measure after a lawsuit brought by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Under the law, a non-compliant pregnancy center may also be subject to a criminal misdemeanor charge under the law and, if convicted, the pregnancy center is subject to a fine of $200, plus $50 for each day the offense continues. The non-payment of fines could result in the pregnancy center being held in contempt of court.
Judge Garbis in Baltimore granted summary judgment finding the anti-pregnancy center law is viewpoint-based and impermissible to render constitutional under the First Amendment. He dismissed without prejudice all other claims and found a couple of the plaintiffs lacked standing (including the Archbishop and the Catholic church that provides space for one of the pregnancy centers that filed suit).
The city of Baltimore and officials with the pro-abortion legal group Center for Reproductive Rights appealed the judge’s decision but pro-life law firms have filed legal papers supporting it.
Matt Bowman of the Alliance Defense Fund says Judge Garbis’ ruling was a correct one.
“The judge ruled that the law’s attempt to burden speech unconstitutionally discriminated against noncommercial, unlicensed speech on the explicit basis that it came from a perspective disfavoring abortion,” he said, calling it a “monumental decision protecting free speech and women’s health.”
“Under the Ordinance, such an organization – referred to as a “limited-service pregnancy center” – must post a conspicuous sign in its waiting room notifying its clients that the center “does not provide or make referral for abortion or birth-control services,’” the judge wrote. “As discussed herein, the Court holds that the Ordinance violates the Freedom of Speech Clause of Article I of the Constitution of the United States and is unenforceable.”
“Whether a provider of pregnancy-related services is “pro-life” or “prochoice,” it is for the provider – not the Government – to decide when and how to discuss abortion and birth-control methods. The Government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, require a “pro-life” pregnancy-related service center to post a sign as would be required by the Ordinance,” Judge Garbis added.
The New York City law faces two lawsuits.
ACTION: Contact the San Francisco Board of Supervisors at http://www.sfbos.org and tell members you oppose their approval of the proposal to target pregnancy centers. Contact Hererra at http://www.sfcityattorney.org/index.aspx?page=9