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Lawmakers seek to regulate faith-based crisis pregnancy centers

Lawmakers seek to regulate faith-based crisis pregnancy centers
In this 2017 file photo, Graciela Valencia, a sophomore at Trinity college, spoke in support of a crack down on faith-driven crisis pregnancy centers in the city of Hartford. Critics say the faith-based centers sometimes pose as health clinics to lure women and hand out misleading information about abortions. (John Woike / Hartford Courant)

Pregnant and largely alone, Alice Ansley of Chaplin turned to a faith-based crisis pregnancy center for guidance and support before her son was born.

"The center helped me a lot,'' Ansley told members of the legislature’s public health committee Monday. “They never neglected me, they never lied to me. We prayed together...and I’m very thankful that I met them.”

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Ansley’s positive experience at a crisis pregnancy center contrasted with the testimony of critics, who say such centers sometimes pose as medical clinics to trick women at a vulnerable time in their lives and hand out misleading information about abortion.

"When a woman seeks health care in Connecticut, she should receive health care,'' Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, told members of the legislature’s public health committee on Monday. “If [crisis pregnancy centers] want to offer religiously based advice and care for pregnant women, so be it. But purposely deceiving women into thinking they’re accessing reproductive healthcare in order to push religious doctrine is deceptive and should not be permitted in the state of Connecticut.”

Gilchrest is backing House Bill 7070, which would prohibit anti-abortion centers from engaging in false or deceptive advertising practices. Advocates say that’s especially important when it comes to women’s reproductive health because some procedures, including abortion, are time-sensitive.

"When a pregnant woman is misled about the reproductive health services she can receive, she loses critical time,'' Attorney General William Tong testified. “This is particularly important when a woman is considering terminating her pregnancy. Delays may mean that safer, less-invasive options are no longer available, or even that she no longer has the option to terminate her pregnancy.”

The legislation follows a similar city ordinance in Hartford that took effect in October. Efforts to pass a statewide regulation fell short at the Capitol last year.

Supporters of the measure say it would not hurt centers that do not mislead women. "If [crisis pregnancy centers] in this state aren’t participating in this type of behavior, then this law doesn’t apply,'' Gilchrest said.

Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, agreed. "This bill will in no way affect pregnancy centers that act appropriately,'' she said, noting that she has long supported a crisis pregnancy center in her district. “This bill is a consumer advocacy bill.”

But those who work at the state’s more than two dozen crisis pregnancy centers say the bill is not needed because the faith-based institutions already make it it clear that they do not provide abortions.

“We believe in fighting for the life of unborn who have no voice,” said Melissa Lin Monte, the medical director of Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center in New London. “We provide support and encouragement for all pregnant women.”

The center is staffed by trained professionals who perform ultrasounds and test for sexually transmitted diseases, among other services. "By no means do we advertise ourselves as an abortion-providing health care clinic,'' Monte said. “There is no false or deceptive advertising at our centers.”

Rep. Doug Dubitsky, a Republican who represents several small towns in eastern Connecticut, said the bill is “a solution without a problem” and could have a chilling effect on all crisis pregnancy centers who may opt to close rather than face legal action by the state attorney general’s office.

The public health committee is expected to vote at a later date.

Several other states have tried to regulate crisis pregnancy centers, according to Rewire.News, an online publication that tracks legislation relating to reproductive health. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law requiring crisis pregnancy centers to disclose that they are not licensed medical facilities was likely unconstitutional. The court sent the case back to a lower court for reconsideration.

Tong said Connecticut’s bill is narrowly crafted and does not violate the Constitution because it seeks to regulate advertising, not impinge on speech

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"Both in its intent and language, HB 7070 protects the public – and, in particular, pregnant women – from deceptive advertising. It does not speak to anti-abortion advocacy,'' he said. “It only bars limited services pregnancy centers from using false, misleading or deceptive language about the services they provide, or using language offering services that the center has no intention of providing.”

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