Abortion-rights advocates asked the state attorney general's office yesterday to investigate "crisis pregnancy centers," which they say try to keep women from having abortions.
In a meeting with Deputy Attorney General Carmen M. Shepard yesterday, representatives of the Maryland branch of the National Abortion Rights Action League outlined the group's undercover investigation of 17 such centers in the Baltimore-Washington area.
The organization charges that many of the centers, which typically advertise free pregnancy tests and counseling, falsely present themselves as offering unbiased advice about a pregnant woman's options.
Some of the centers also imply or state that they are medical facilities, when no medical staff are on site, said Nancy C. Lineman, executive director of the Maryland NARAL Education Fund.
"When women believe they are going to get the full range of medically accurate information and that is not the case when they visit the centers, that's when we take issue," Lineman said.
NARAL is asking the attorney general's office to investigate whether the centers violate Maryland's consumer protection law by misleading clients about their services.
Jamie St. Onge, a spokeswoman for Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., said yesterday that the office could not comment on what it might do with the information.
Albert Kimball III, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Crisis Pregnancy Center, which runs some of the centers visited, said his organization operates legally.
He said the center makes clear in its literature that its mostly volunteer staffers have no professional training and that women should see a doctor after visiting the center.
"We are nothing short of 100 percent truthful," he said.
The call for an investigation in Maryland is part of a nationwide effort by abortion-rights activists to counter the pregnancy centers, which they say are the latest move by anti-abortion forces to keep women from ending unwanted pregnancies.
NARAL estimates that 3,000 pregnancy centers across the country are run by abortion opponents who try to convince women to deliver their babies, compared with 2,000 facilities that provide abortions. Maryland has about 65 crisis pregnancy centers, the organization estimates.
In New York, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer issued subpoenas to 10 crisis pregnancy centers in January, seeking information about whether the centers were engaging in false advertising.
The centers, in turn, called the investigation a politically motivated attack on their constitutional rights.
Spitzer has dropped the subpoenas and reached agreements with several centers.
Darren Dopp, a spokesman for Spitzer, said the investigation seemed to have persuaded most of the pregnancy centers to be clearer about the services they provide.
The centers have been directed to tell callers over the phone that they do not provide abortions and to state that they are not medical facilities.
When they provide pregnancy test kits, the centers are to tell women to see their doctors or to provide a list of doctors, Dopp said.
"If an individual calls up and says, `May I obtain an abortion at your facility?' they are obligated to say no," he said.
In 1993, Ohio's attorney general reached a similar settlement with eight centers that he had charged with violating truth-in-advertising laws.
One of the Maryland abortion-rights investigators said in an interview that center staff dodged the question about abortion services when she called for an appointment.
Jessica Solomon, a 19-year-old student at the University of Maryland, College Park, posed as a woman worried that she was pregnant.
In February, Solomon called the Greater Baltimore Crisis Pregnancy Center and made an appointment at the center's office in Highlandtown.
On the phone, Solomon said, "I asked them if they know anything about abortion. They blew it off. They just said, `Come in, and we'll figure it out.'"
Once she did, Solomon said, a woman who took her to a room displaying anti-abortion literature met her. When Solomon mentioned she might want to have an abortion, "that's when she really said, `Oh, you don't want to do that. You'll mess up your body,'" Solomon said. "She was really trying to scare me into not having that as an option."
Kimball said the center's telephone operators are trained to tell women when asked that the centers neither perform abortions nor provide referrals for them.
He said the counselors do not tell women not to have abortions, but outline the risks involved - risks he said abortion-rights groups fail to disclose. "What we say is many women who choose abortion regret it later," he said.