Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Reps. Jillian Gilchrest, Liz Linehan, Christine Palm, and Jonathan Steinberg (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — A controversial bill that would regulate advertising for crisis pregnancy centers passed the House Thursday by a 81-63 vote largely along party lines after a lengthy debate.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

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

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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. Critics of the centers say women believe they are getting a full spectrum of reproductive care when that’s not the case.

The bill approved Thursday by the House would regulate the centers’ advertising and allow the attorney general to apply for a court order to bring a center into compliance with the law.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said the goal of the legislation and government is to go after the “bad actors.”

Referring to the pregnancy clinics, Steinberg said: “The vast majority are behaving well, acting responsibly, are ethical, straightforward and clear. But we are concerned about bad actors who are intentionally misleading young people about the services they provide.”

Steinberg added: “We often have young women who are seeking medical advice about their alternatives.” He said that often that may involve a woman who is considering an abortion but those women “may wind up postponing making a decision on having an abortion until abortion is no longer an option.”

The bill was raised for debate in the wake of Alabama’s decision to join Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio in banning abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected, which could be as early as seven weeks.

Connecticut may seem to be solidly pro-choice, but “women’s reproductive rights are under attack in this country,” Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, told her colleagues, saying the anti-choice movement has a strategy “in the courts, in the federal congressional level and the state legislative level.”

She said that strategy plays out especially in poorer communities in the state where, she said, it is commonplace for full-range reproductive health clinics to open up near crisis pregnancy centers.

During a press conference before the floor debate, Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, noted that the bill has been in front of the legislature before and “hopefully this time we will get it over the goal line.”

Linehan, like Steinberg said the “vast majority (of pregnancy centers) will be unaffected because they are acting appropriately. We are going after the bad actors.”

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Rep. William A. Petit Jr. (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

During a public hearing on the bill, Rep. William A. Petit, Jr., R-Plainville, said that he didn’t believe there were any cases concerning alleged impropriety being brought up at a pregnancy center in Connecticut.

“My position has been consistent,” Petit said. “I did not feel there was a significant problem in 2017 and 2019.”

Petit introduced an amendment that would put the purview of going after “bad actors” under the state Department of Consumer Protection, instead of the Attorney General’s office.

His position was echoed by House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who said there was no reason that enforcement should fall “under the auspices of the Attorney General’s office.”

Steinberg said he felt that the bill would be better enforced under the auspices of the Attorney General’s office. Petit’s amendment was defeated, largely along party lines.

Also speaking against the bill was Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, who said simply: “It is not the government’s business to get in anyone’s lives. I always will be pro-choice, but I’m voting against this bill.”

Attorney General William Tong, who testified in favor of the legislation during a public hearing, 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 three dozen crisis pregnancy centers in Connecticut, but only four of them offer medical services, according to Lisa Maloney, executive director of CareNet.

Tong, and other proponents state that 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.

“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.

A federal lawsuit has been filed against the city of Hartford in April for enacting that ordinance.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Willimantic-based Caring Families Pregnancy Services Inc. and its mobile care units, claims Hartford’s ordinance violates the laws of Connecticut and the U.S. Constitution because it compels them to disclose if it doesn’t have a licensed medical provider on the premises at all times.

It’s likely a similar lawsuit would be filed against the state if this legislation becomes law.

A coalition representing some of the centers that would be the subject of this legislation said the bill specifically targets pregnancy resource centers that do not make referrals for abortions. The coalition sees this as “viewpoint discrimination” and part of an effort by pro-abortion advocates, such as NARAL CT, to put these centers out of business through expensive legal actions. The coalition vehemently denies claims concerning false and misleading advertising made by proponents of the legislation.