WASHINGTON -- The anti-abortion Crisis Pregnancy Centers in Baltimore and four other Maryland locations are providing faulty information about abortion and birth control and are deceiving women into thinking they offer abortion services, a complaint to the state attorney general's office alleged yesterday.
"These propaganda mills operate in flagrant violation of Maryland consumer law," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, a self-described constitutional liberties organization active in the abortion-rights movement. "The deception of vulnerable women is standard operating procedure these so-called 'pregnancy centers.' "
Named in the complaint were the Auburne Center in Baltimore, )) Bowie Crisis Pregnancy Center, Forestville Pregnancy Center, Laurel Crisis Pregnancy Center and Shady Grove Pregnancy Center in Gaithersburg.
The complaint asks the state to order the five centers to stop what it termed "deceptive and misleading practices" in advertisements and phone conversations and to levy $2,000 fines for each violation.
The organization said it identified the five locations through an advertisement in the "clinic" section of the Maryland Suburban Yellow Pages which read "ABC's of Abortion."
The ad includes a toll-free number connected to the Auburne Center, which refers people to other centers based on the caller's location, said the complaint, noting the ad is "potentially misleading" since it does not say the number will refer them to anti-abortion centers.
The centers "answered evasively" when asked if they performed abortions and engaged in "scare tactics" to dissuade women from having abortions once they arrived, according to the complaint.
Two women "testers" were sent by the organization to four of the locations, with the exception of the Auburne Center, which operates the hot line referring callers to other centers.
Jennifer Savage, one of the testers, said at a news conference yesterday that a staffer at Forestville center told her "birth control pills . . . would make me sterile."
A model of a plastic fetus was "shoved" in her face, and the staffer told her, "You are a mother, this is your baby. . . . It can feel pain," Ms. Savage said.
Another tester, Elizabeth Loomis, visited the Bowie center and claimed that a staff member showed an anti-abortion videotape and "became angry" when she attempted to leave.
"These allegations are politically motivated and totally unfounded," said Pamela Palumbo, executive director of the Bowie center, which she said has assisted 15,000 women during its decade in operation. "I've never had one complaint from a real client," she said.
"We're definitely a pro-life organization," Ms. Palumbo said of the non-profit, privately funded center. "We are upfront on anything people call us about."
"It just seems a little mean-spirited," Marilyn Szewczyk, director of the Auburne Center, said of the charges. The Aldershot Road facility has four operators that refer callers to one of 38 centers in Maryland, she said. Ms. Szewczyk denied that her center is evasive about its role. When callers inquire, they are told the center does not make abortion referrals, she said.
The Shady Grove center, in a statement, said it "is committed to integrity in dealing with clients, earning their trust and providing promised information and services."
Officials at the Laurel and Forestville centers did not return phone calls.
Nancy Myers, communications director for the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund, which distributes information about the centers, also brushed aside the charges. "They're just trying to create bad press and bad publicity for people who try to help women," she said.
It will take from six months to a year to investigate the allegations and determine whether there has been a violation of Maryland law, said Peter V. Berns, deputy chief of the Division of Consumer Protection. Mr. Berns said he could not recall any complaints from consumers about the five centers.