Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Dr. Melissa Lin Monte, medical director of the Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center in New London (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The Public Health Committee heard two different stories Monday about a bill that would regulate crisis pregnancy centers.

Crisis pregnancy centers provide pregnancy-related services and support, but do not offer abortions or emergency contraception and do not offer referrals for those services. Supporters of a bill up for a public hearing Monday said the advertising methods used by these centers are deceptive and make women believe they are getting a full spectrum of reproductive care when that’s not the case.

“The intent of this bill is to go after those who are being deceptive,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport. “We are looking to take care of the bad actors and leave those who are performing ethically alone.”

The bill would regulate advertising and allow the attorney general to apply for a court order to bring a center into compliance with the law. A similar bill was raised by the Public Health Committee last year for debate, but it never received a vote.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 HB 7070: An Act Concerning Deceptive Advertising Practices Of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers

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Attorney General William Tong, who testified in favor of the legislation, said it was closely modeled after legislation in San Francisco that has been upheld in higher court rulings.

San Francisco enacted its truth-in-advertising law in 2011 to stop crisis pregnancy centers from running ads that make it seem like they are abortion providers. The ordinance imposes penalties on clinics that make false or misleading statements.

In a separate case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided it was unconstitutional for the state of California to require the crisis pregnancy centers to post a brief notice and a number to call for free- and low-cost reproductive health services, including abortion care.

There are about 25 crisis pregnancy centers in Connecticut, but only four of them offer medical services, according to Lisa Maloney, executive director of CareNet.

Tong said the bill “does not speak to anti-abortion advocacy. 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.”

Also testifying in favor of the bill was Sarah Croucher, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut.

She noted that in 2015 NARAL published a landmark report, The Right to Lie, which included 22 undercover visits to pregnancy centers that revealed several deceptive practices.

“Our work in Hartford included significant documentation of the harm done by these centers, and their attempts to ‘lure’ women who were seeking legitimate healthcare into one of their facilities,” Croucher noted.

She said in March 2018 they released an updated report and the findings show “that, although their practices are varied, several limited services pregnancy centers in Connecticut continue to deceive individuals who are trying to find abortion care,” Croucher said in written testimony.

Following the NARAL report, the city of Hartford passed its own legislation tightening up reporting requirements on pregnancy centers in the city.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin testified in favor of the state following his city’s action.

”I believe that this is something that one should support regardless of one’s position on choice,” Bronin said, “that no woman deserves to be deceived or misled about the range of options that are being offered.”

The bill also has the support of Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven.

“Under the guise of being a comprehensive reproductive healthcare provider, CPCs routinely use delay tactics and medically inaccurate information to steer people away from choosing time-sensitive reproductive healthcare,” Looney testified.

“They frequently target urban neighborhoods and other medically underserved communities where people do not have access to regular gynecology services. Irrespective of one’s views on access to abortion, I hope we can agree that using dishonesty to manipulate health care consumers is something that we cannot tolerate in Connecticut,” he added.

But the centers have their supporters, too.

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, worried that the legislation — despite its good intentions — could open up the state to “more litigation, not less.”

And Dr. Melissa Lin Monte, medical director of the Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center in New London, told the committee: “there is nothing fake about our pregnancy care center.” She said that the bill could unfairly hamper its practice.

“We provide support and encouragement for all pregnant woman, not just the abortion-minded,” said Monte. “We don’t advertise ourselves as an abortion providing clinic. Furthermore, she stated: “We believe in fighting for the life of the unborn that have no voice.”

“We educate our patients about all their options,” she said.

Cody Barr, board secretary at Caring Family Services Pregnancy Services and a volunteer at the Women’s Center of Eastern Connecticut, said in written testimony: “I strongly oppose this unconstitutional bill that unfairly discriminates against faith-based pregnancy centers.”

“Pro-life pregnancy centers do not perform or refer for abortion because doing so would violate their religious and moral convictions,” Barr said.

He said the legislation could violate the First Amendment.

“At our center we believe that women are served best when they are provided with evidence-based, factual information about all of their legal options when facing an unplanned pregnancy,” Barr said. “Our center provides information to our clients about these legal options which include parenting, adoption, and abortion. We also provide options counseling through a decision aid tool, free pregnancy testing and ultrasounds, parenting classes, and material assistance.”

Opponents of the bill worried that advertisements such as “Pregnant? Need help” are being targeted by the legislation.