NYCLU: City Can Protect First Amendment and Women’s Rights to Reproductive Health Care

November 16, 2010 —  At a New York City Council hearing today on a bill to require crisis pregnancy centers to fully disclose the scope and limits of their services, the New York Civil Liberties Union suggested revisions to the legislation that would strike an appropriate balance between the centers’ right to free speech and women’s right to access reproductive health care free of coercion, deception and delay.

“Crisis pregnancy centers are not licensed medical facilities, but women often believe that they are. When they deceive women about their services, people get hurt,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman, who testified before the Committee on Women’s Issues. “We believe that this legislation can be crafted to both protect the right to free speech and women’s right to have accurate information when they make critical decisions about their health.”

Reports from across the country, including a local report released by NARAL Pro-Choice New York in October 2010, document a pattern of practices by crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that lead women to confuse them with licensed medical facilities. The report showed that CPCs often employ tactics that delay or mislead women about the care they are receiving or discourage them from seeking care from licensed medical providers, which poses serious health risks.

The bill, cosponsored by Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Jessica Lappin, would ensure that CPCs in the city are upfront with women who come to them that they do not provide or refer for abortions.

Lieberman advised council members to closely tailor the legislation’s speech restrictions to the government’s interest in preventing both medical fraud and deliberate delays in pregnant women seeking medical care.

“There is no question that CPCs and their staff have free speech rights,” Lieberman said. “These rights are critical to the robust public debate about a range of topics, including abortion, and our society’s commitment to democratic self-government. It is vital that these rights are preserved and guarded.”

Among her recommendations, she urged council members to revise the bill’s language to ensure that it will not target facilities solely based upon their unwillingness to provide abortion services. She also recommended that the legislation require all CPCs to disclose that they are not licensed medical facilities.

NYCLU Communications Director Jennifer Carnig, who recently visited the EMC Pregnancy Center – a CPC located in downtown Brooklyn – also testified. Carnig, who is pregnant, said the center had the look and feel of a doctor’s office, complete with a waiting room, paperwork on her medical history, and an employee in scrubs performing a sonogram on her.

“It’s crucial that employees at crisis pregnancy centers have the right to continue expressing their viewpoints – the First Amendment clearly protects all political speech,” Carnig said. “But when I left EMC I felt it was a place that wants people to think it is providing medical services. And while crisis pregnancy center employees must have a right to speak, it’s also crucial that women have all of the facts when it comes to their health.”