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Our view: Pregnancy centers' lawsuit over sign mandate doesn't hold up

April 02, 2010

On Jan. 4, Baltimore's Center for Pregnancy Concerns posted signs in its reception areas stating that it did not provide abortion services or referrals or birth control. The signs, conspicuously displayed in accordance with a first-of-its kind local law, were accompanied by another sign, not required by the City Council, saying what the centers do offer: a 24-hour help line, confidential peer counseling, free pregnancy tests, sonograms and more.

According to the director of the center, the signs have not resulted in a reduction in the number of women the centers serve, and they haven't come up much in conversations with their clients.

The signs, in other words, have not caused any real harm.

Nonetheless, the center, with the assistance of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has filed a federal lawsuit to throw out the new city law. Carol A. Clews, the director of the center, calls the law an insult and says it impugns the integrity of her organization. The attorneys arguing the case say it is a violation of the guarantees of freedom of speech and religion contained in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Their argument is that just as the government can't prohibit speech, it can't compel it either, except in some narrow circumstances such as commercial speech. The centers are non-profits and take no money from their clients so, they argue, they don't fall under that category.

But regardless of their non-profit status, the clinics provide health services, and the government does have a compelling interest in making sure that potential clients are not confused - or in a worst case scenario, misled - about what services the clinics offer.

Abortion rights groups convinced the City Council to enact this law by testifying that they had sent undercover young women to centers like these and found that they were given inaccurate information about abortion. Ms. Clews and others involved with Baltimore's centers say that does not happen here, but it is reasonable for the government to ensure that no potential for misunderstanding exists about the nature of so crucial a service.

That said, this issue has always been impossible to separate from politics. It reflects an on-the-ground skirmish over the rules by which the war between pro-choice groups and pro-life groups can be waged, and whatever its intent, the City Council has thrown some weight behind the pro-choice side. The pregnancy centers are upset about the law not because it is forcing them to change their practices or say something they don't believe but because they feel picked on. They say that if they're being forced to say what services they don't offer, clinics that provide abortions should be forced to do the same thing.

They have a point. If the council's intent is not to tip the scales in the political fight over abortion but to secure the public's health by making sure vulnerable women aren't confused or misled, the same standards should apply to both sides. Posting the signs hasn't hindered the pregnancy centers' ability to continue their mission; chances are, signs wouldn't hurt clinics that provide abortion or birth control either.

Readers respond
The fact that abortion clinics are ashamed to say what they do indicates that the battle has already been won.

We know abortion is wrong, yet we continue to allow it because it is expedient. Sort of like the apologists for slavery who referred to their "peculiar institution."


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