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Austin, Texas City Council is Latest to Overturn Crisis Pregnancy Center Ordinance

Austin, Texas is the latest city to repeal an ordinance that required crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) to post signs disclosing factual information about their services to potential clients. Under the ordinance, CPCs were required to publicly state that they do not offer abortions, make abortion referrals, or offer contraceptive services.[1] In late January 2012, the city council made the decision to repeal the ordinance in response to a lawsuit filed by four CPCs challenging its constitutionality. In light of recent repeals of similar disclosure ordinances in Baltimore, Maryland and New York City, the City of Austin Law Department recommended repealing the ordinance to avoid costly litigation. As reported in the Austin Statesman, the original ordinance, which passed in April 2010, has been revised by the city council and now omits the words “abortion” and “birth control.”[2] However, CPCs in Austin are still required to indicate whether they offer medical services under licensed professionals.[3]
 
Crisis pregnancy centers advertise as providing medical services to women facing unintended pregnancy but commonly use anti-abortion propaganda, misinformation, and fear and shame tactics to persuade women to carry their pregnancy to full term. The impetus behind ordinances requiring CPCs to disclose information about their services is to prevent these organizations from disseminating misleading, medically inaccurate, or incomplete information about the physical and mental effects of abortion. For instance, a 2006 report issued under the direction of Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), False and Misleading Health Information Provided by Federally Funded Pregnancy Resource Centers, found that 87% of federally funded CPCs provided “false and misleading information” and “grossly exaggerated the medical risks of abortion,” which included false claims that abortion causes breast cancer, sterility, and psychological damage.[4] Additionally, there is concern that these tactics contribute to the likelihood of women seeking an abortion later in their pregnancy when services are more costly and risky to their health.[5]
 
In January 2011, U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis ruled a similar city ordinance in Baltimore unconstitutional. Enacted in February 2010, it required CPCs to post signs in English and Spanish stating that they do not have licensed medical professionals on staff. The ordinance was immediately challenged by a lawsuit filed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.[6] Judge Garbis ruled that requiring CPCs to post signs about their services violates the Freedom of Speech Clause of the Constitution and is “unenforceable.”[7] Similarly, the New York City Council sought to increase transparency among CPC practices and passed an ordinance on March 2, 2011, with overwhelming support in a vote of 39–9. As with anti-choice opposition in Baltimore and Austin, a lawsuit was filed by Expectant Mother Care/EMC Frontline Pregnancy Center and Life Centers of New York resulting in a temporary ban on enforcement of the ordinance. Federal Judge William Pauley cited the ambiguous language of the ordinance as problematic to free speech and had the potential to “compel [the plaintiffs] to speak certain messages or face significant fines and/or closure of their facilities.”[8]
 
The grounds on which CPCs are able to successfully challenge disclosure ordinances are being taken into consideration by similar efforts in San Francisco. There the city supervisor, Malia Cohen, introduced an ordinance [212-11] to prevent false advertising of services by CPCs in July 2011. Unlike previous attempts, San Francisco’s proposed ordinance does not require CPCs to post specific signs. Rather, CPCs in San Francisco will be held in violation if they are found to be making or disseminating false information regarding their services or whether there are licensed medical professionals on-site.[9] First Resort, a CPC in San Francisco, filed suit in November 2011 stating “we believe the ordinance is a blatant violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.”[10]
 
 

[1] Sarah Coppolla, “City Repeals, Replaces Sign Ordinance for Pregnancy Centers,” Austin Statesman, 26 January 2012, accessed 28 January 2012, <http://www.statesman.com/news/local/city-repeals-replaces-sign-ordinance-for-pregnancy-centers-2128625.html>.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “Federally Funded Crisis Pregnancy Centers Provide False and Misleading Information about Abortion; Money Funneled through Abstinence-Only-until-Marriage Funding Streams,” SIECUS, July 2006, accessed 30 January 2012, <http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Feature.showFeature&featureid=1128&pageid=483&parentid=478>; see also NARAL Pro-Choice America, The Truth about Crisis Pregnancy Centers, 1 January 2010, accessed 29 January 2012, <http://www.naral.org/media/fact-sheets/abortion-cpcs.pdf>, 6.
[5] NARAL Pro-Choice America, The Truth about Crisis Pregnancy Centers, 7.
[6] Associated Press, “Pregnancy Disclaimer Law Ruled Unconstitutional,” Washington Times, 28 January 2011, accessed 30 January 2012, <http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/jan/28/pregnancy-disclaimer-law-ruled-unconstitutional>.
[7] “Federal Judge Says Baltimore Ordinance Requiring CPCs to Disclose Services Is Unconstitutional,” National Partnership for Women and Families, 31 January 2011, accessed 30 January 2012, <http://www.nationalpartnership.org/site/News2?news_iv_ctrl=-1&abbr=daily4_&page=NewsArticle&id=27548>.
[8] “Court Blocks New York City Crisis Pregnancy Center Ordinance,” National Partnership for Women and Families, 14 July 2011, accessed 30 January 2012, http://www.nationalpartnership.org/site/News2?abbr=daily2_&page=NewsArticle&id=29448
[9] Kate Sheppard, “San Francisco Takes On Crisis Pregnancy Centers,” Mother Jones, 27 September 2011, accessed 29 January 2012, <http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/09/san-francisco-takes-crisis-pregnancy-centers>.
[10] First Resort, “San Francisco Pregnancy Care Center Files Suit in San Francisco to Protect the Right to Free Speech,” Press Release published 16 November 2011, accessed 1 February 2012, <http://www.prweb.com/releases/prweb2011/11/prweb8969452.htm>.

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