In a Nutshell
- · Some abortion-supporting local officials in Massachusetts are drawing back from targeting pro-life crisis pregnancy centers.
- · No one showed up at a state legislative committee hearing to testify for a bill seeking to ban “deceptive” practices by such centers.
- · The abortion-supporting state attorney general’s office has been quietly telling local officials not to adopt such measures, two city officials said recently.
- · The possibility of having to pay the plaintiffs’ heavy attorney’s fees for losing a civil rights case looms large in recent decisions.
Once on the upswing, laws targeting pro-life crisis pregnancy centers in abortion-friendly Massachusetts have hit a wall in recent months — and the state attorney general’s office may be one reason why.
In February, the city council in Framingham (about 19 miles west of Boston) changed course on a measure targeting crisis pregnancy centers, approving a resolution criticizing them but abandoning a proposed ordinance with an enforcement mechanism.
On July 18, the city council of Worcester, the second largest city in the state, signaled it may abandon an attempt to ban so-called “deceptive advertising” by such centers.
On July 24, a bill in the state Legislature seeking to ban “deceptive” statements by pregnancy resource centers statewide “whether by statement or omission” drew 23 opponents to testify against it during a legislative committee, but no supporters.
And on Aug. 2, the city council in Easthampton, in the western part of the state, failed to override a veto by the mayor of a watered-down proposal that sought to publicize criticism of such centers by state agencies, notify the public about “deceptive advertising regarding reproductive health care,” and help city residents file a complaint with the state against pregnancy resource centers.
Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChappelle, who supports abortion, said during a public meeting July 5 she can’t support the measure because she is worried about “additional legal exposure.” Two city councilors concerned about that point subsequently changed their original votes, sinking an effort on Aug. 2 to override the mayor’s veto.
Rebecca Hart Holder, president of Reproductive Equity Now, which supports abortion, said she is “extremely disappointed” in the Easthampton result.
“This ordinance would have provided its residents with the tools and resources they need to make informed and personal decisions about their reproductive health care. The vote’s failure is indicative of how rampant anti-abortion misinformation and disinformation can be in our communities,” Hart Holder said in a written statement.
Pregnancy resource centers, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, are non-profit organizations that provide free products and services to pregnant women before and after birth to help them and to try to persuade them not to have an abortion.
Critics of such centers say some use misleading tactics to lure women with problem pregnancies and try to get them to have their baby instead of getting the abortion that the women may want. Supporters of such centers say they provide vital services to women in need in an up-front and honest manner.
Two cities near Boston, Somerville and Cambridge, have banned deceptive advertising by crisis pregnancy centers — Somerville in March 2022 and Cambridge in January 2023. But neither city has a crisis pregnancy center, so they are unlikely to draw a lawsuit challenging the ordinances.
State Attorney General’s Quiet Role
Is the Massachusetts attorney general’s office quietly telling public officials not to pursue ordinances and bylaws targeting crisis pregnancy centers?
That’s what the Worcester city manager and city solicitor told the city council during a public meeting last month, to explain why they haven’t brought before the council a draft ordinance against such centers as a slim majority of the councilors requested in July 2022.
“What I was told was the AG’s office was not recommending that people, that other cities or towns adopt any more of these ordinances,” Worcester City Solicitor Michael Traynor said during the public meeting July 18, saying that the state attorney general’s office is “concerned about lawsuits for the communities.”
“And so they just said, informally, we’re not recommending you go forward. They didn’t tell me not to do it, they didn’t say you can’t do it, it was just this is what they were recommending to other towns …” Traynor said.
Cty Manager Eric Batista during the public meeting described such conversations with the state attorney general’s office as “off the record.”
A spokesman for the state attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment from the Register.
But the city solicitor’s comments were enough for the mayor, Joseph Petty, a supporter of abortion who has received campaign donations from Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts. Petty, who voted for the initial measure last year, announced during the meeting July 18 that he will now vote against it.
“I think I’ll no longer support this from a liability issue for the city of Worcester,” Petty said.
The city council is planning to discuss the matter and possibly vote on it Aug. 22. As mayor, Petty chairs the city council and votes on measures that come before it. If Petty flips, and if the other councilors vote the same way they did last year, the measure would fail, by a single vote.
Cities and towns that lose federal civil rights lawsuits may have to pay hefty attorney’s fees for lawyers representing plaintiffs.
In November 2022, for instance, the city of Boston agreed to pay $2.125 million in attorney’s fees to Liberty Counsel, a non-profit legal organization that won a U.S. Supreme Court case in May 2022 on behalf of a Massachusetts man who wanted to have the city fly a Christian flag outside Boston City Hall.
Michael King, director of community alliances for the Massachusetts Family Institute, told the Register public officials are feeling the heat because of the potential monetary liability at stake.
“These councils are understanding the legal liability of their unconstitutional, unnecessary, and unethical ordinances against pregnancy resource centers,” King said by email.
That also explains the state attorney general’s apparent stance in private communications, he said.
“It seems even the attorney general’s office is able to look beyond its bias and see the realistic potential of a lawsuit that would challenge their viewpoint discrimination against Pregnancy Resource Centers,” King said.
Kathy Parsons, state ambassador for the Hosea Initiative of Boston, a pro-life organization, told the Register laws targeting crisis pregnancy centers “may thankfully be dwindling.”
“These laws are meant to intimidate pro-life facilities from freely speaking and operating within their constitutionally protected First Amendment right, benefiting big abortion at the expense of needy mothers, children and families. It is a weaponizing of the law in targeting only PRCs while allowing free rein to abortion clinics,” Parsons said by email.
Twenty-Three to Zero
The no-show by supporters of a proposed statewide ban on “deceptive” statements by crisis pregnancy centers at a recent hearing at the Massachusetts State House surprised pro-lifers. It’s routine for the principal sponsor of a bill to testify in favor of it before a committee — the chairmen of such committees often take their colleagues’ testimony immediately and ahead of other people who have signed up to speak, as a courtesy, and these days live testimony can be given online from anywhere.
Yet nobody showed up either in person or online to testify in favor of the bill July 24 during a public hearing of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Licensure, while 23 people spoke against it.
State Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, the principal sponsor of the House bill, and State Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, the principal sponsor of the Senate bill, did not immediately respond to a request for comment by the Register this week.
However, the group’s website does feature a writeup about a lawsuit recently filed against Clearpath Clinic, a crisis pregnancy center in Worcester.
In June, an unnamed woman filed a class action lawsuit in state superior court in Worcester against the pro-life center. In the suit, according to her lawyers, the woman claims that clinic staff failed to accurately diagnose an ectopic pregnancy, thereby leading to a life-threatening health problem later in the pregnancy; and also claims that the clinic’s deceptive advertising practices led her to enter the facility in the first place.
The clinic’s executive director, Jill Jorgensen, did not directly address the claims in a statement but defended the clinic.
“We cannot speak as to any individual’s medical claims or history due to HIPAA regulations. Clearway Clinic has served more than 10,000 women and their families in the Worcester area for the past 22 years at no cost and have never had a complaint like this in the past. We hope to continue to provide needed services to women and their families in Massachusetts for many more years,” Jorgensen said in the written statement.
Crisis pregnancy centers have also been targeted through legislation elsewhere, and some have fought back with lawsuits. It’s unclear where courts will end up on the matter.
In Connecticut, a crisis pregnancy center in January 2023 withdrew a federal lawsuit challenging a state statute banning what it calls “deceptive” practices “whether by statement or omission,” saying it was satisfied that the state attorney general wasn’t taking action against crisis pregnancy centers in the state.
In Vermont, Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization headquartered in Arizona that takes religious liberty, free speech, parents’ rights, and pro-life cases, on July 25 filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that the complaint says “censors the centers’ ability to advertise their free services” and “precludes centers from offering non-medical services, information, and counseling unless provided by a licensed health care provider.” The bill was signed into law in May 2023.
In Illinois, the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit legal organization headquartered in Chicago that supports what it calls “the sanctity of life, religious liberty, traditional family values, and election integrity,” on July 27 filed a federal lawsuit against a recently enacted state statute that bans what it calls “deceptive practices” by crisis pregnancy centers.