Amherst Officials Moving To Ban ‘Deceptive Advertising’ By Crisis Pregnancy Centers

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Town officials in Amherst are seeking to pass a bylaw aimed at crisis pregnancy centers.

Ana Devlin Gauthier, the Amherst Town Council vice president, is sponsoring a measure that would ban what it calls “deceptive advertising” by “limited services pregnancy centers.”

By “limited services pregnancy centers,” the proposed bylaw means pregnancy centers that don’t offer abortion or emergency contraception.

Crisis pregnancy centers are non-profit organizations that provide free services for pregnant women such as baby products, ultrasounds, and counseling. Organizers say they try to give women with problem pregnancies help if they want to give birth to a baby.

Critics say they give false information.

Such centers “often mask their mission in deceptive advertising in order to attract quote-unquote ‘abortion-vulnerable clients.’ Their goal is to dissuade pregnant people from receiving abortions,” Devlin Gauthier said.

“CPCs often target low-income women, women of color, adolescents, and women with less formal education,” she added.

“No Limited Services Pregnancy Center,” the proposed bylaw says, “with the intent to perform a Pregnancy-Related Service, shall make or disseminate before the public … any statement concerning any Pregnancy-Related Service or the provision of any Pregnancy-Related Service that is deceptive, whether by statement or omission, and that a Limited Services Pregnancy Center knows or reasonably should know to be deceptive.”

According to Crisis Pregnancy Center Map, a research project that tracks such centers, there are 29 crisis pregnancy centers in Massachusetts. There are none in Amherst.

NewBostonPost reported recently that the city of Somerville in March 2022 became the first Massachusetts municipality to enact such a local rule. The proposed Amherst measure is similar to the one put in place in Somerville.

In Amherst, the proposed bylaw would set a $300 fine for every violation. Devlin Gauthier said that enforcement would be “predominantly complaint-driven.”

In May 2021, state legislators in Connecticut also passed a law banning what it calls “deceptive advertising” by “limited services pregnancy centers.” In October 2021, a Christian crisis pregnancy center sued the state to overturn the law, arguing that it violates the center’s freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. The case is pending.

In Amherst, Devlin Gauthier, during a Town Council meeting this past April 25, referred to a July 2006 study that found that 20 out of 23 crisis pregnancy centers contacted for the study provided “false or misleading information about the health effects of abortion.” The study was prepared for then-Congressman Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California who supported legal and publicly funded abortion while in office.

After citing the study, Devlin Gauthier concluded that “often these centers vastly misrepresented the medical risks of abortion, claiming that having one could increase the risk of breast cancer, which is false, result in sterility, false, and lead to suicide and quote ‘post-abortion stress disorder,’ also false, not a real disorder.”

Devlin Gauthier warned her fellow councilors that “there have been attempts by these organizations to establish in our community in the past, and those outside our community could advertise here.”

NewBostonPost asked Devlin Gauthier by email last week if she knows if any of the 29 crisis pregnancy centers in Massachusetts have participated in “deceptive advertising practices,” and, if so, what kinds. The councilor did not respond.

NewBostonPost also contacted several crisis pregnancy centers about Devlin Gauthier’s comments.

Diane O’Toole, the executive director of Boston Center for Pregnancy Choices, a crisis pregnancy center in Boston’s leather district, said her center has “strict internal policies to not provide deceptive advertising” and offers “factual and supportive options counseling.”

“We have provided these services to women in the Boston area for almost 40 years and have consistently received extremely positive feedback from our clients on our exit surveys. 92% of our clients in 2021 reporting that we provide helpful services and 100% reporting that they would recommend us to a friend,” O’Toole added.

Muriel Ostrowski from Heartbeat Pregnancy Help, a crisis pregnancy center in Burlington, said that many pregnant women have told her that they believe they don’t have choices besides getting an abortion. “We want pregnant women to have access to accurate information about the choices open to them and to know that help is available to them if they choose to parent or make an adoption plan,” Ostrowski said.

“We do not pretend to be a medical clinic,” she added. “We offer hope and help to women who want other options. Of course, we hope the women will choose life for their children when they realize help is available and have accurate information about the risks of abortion, but we are not deceptive.”

In the last year, several abortion-friendly commentators in Massachusetts have taken aim at crisis pregnancy centers, including a college professor and a Massachusetts state senator.

This past February, Carrie Baker, a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College in Northampton, and Tallulah Costa, a freshman at Smith, wrote an opinion piece for The Greenfield Reporter that called for state-level restrictions against crisis pregnancy centers. The two women cited the Connecticut law as an example of what they want in Massachusetts.

On June 7, 2021, during a hearing of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health, Becca Rausch (D-Needham), a state senator representing the Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex District, described “crisis pregnancy centers” as “fake women’s health centers.” 

Rausch added that “by and large, fake women’s health centers are anti-choice hot spots that disguise themselves as reproductive health care  providers to trick people seeking abortion into entering their facilities only to then actively discourage individuals seeking medical care to get the care they both want and deserve. Fake women’s health centers are not licensed or regulated medical clinics. They are not routinely staffed with licensed medical professionals. Put another way, these so-called crisis pregnancy centers intentionally lie to, shame, and mislead pregnant people seeking abortions to prevent them from accessing abortion care.”

NewBostonPost contacted Rausch by email seeking comment on Amherst’s proposed measure concerning crisis pregnancy centers. Rausch did not respond by deadline.

NewBostonPost also contacted the executive director of Massachusetts Citizens For Life, Patricia Stewart, about the Amherst proposal.

Stewart took aim at the idea that crisis pregnancy centers engage in “deceptive advertising.”

“Misleading the public about crisis pregnancy centers violates Councilor Gauthier’s sworn duty to preserve the public trust,” Stewart said.

Specifically, Stewart called Devlin Gauthier’s statement that post-abortion stress disorder is “not a real disorder” “just one example of her dangerously false claims.”

“The American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion would beg to differ,” Stewart said. “In 2008, it reported that ‘some women … experience sadness, grief, and feelings of loss following termination of a pregnancy’ and ‘Some women experience clinically significant outcomes, such as depression or anxiety.’ “

The 2008 report is titled “Mental Health and Abortion.”

Stewart also said that crisis pregnancy centers don’t use coercion to get pregnant women in the door.

“These facilities merely offer women experiencing a crisis pregnancy the option of continuing a pregnancy they could not manage without the free services and resources that a CPC provides,” Stewart said. “A woman is always free to go elsewhere if she feels compelled to seek an abortion. Why do Amherst’s public officials insist on denying her the option of choosing LIFE?”

NewBostonPost provided Stewart’s statement to Devlin Gauthier in an email message on Monday, June 6. She did not respond by deadline.

During the Amherst Town Council meeting on April 25, Devlin Gauthier made a motion to refer the proposal to the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee, a subcommittee of the Amherst Town Council that makes recommendations regarding proposed town bylaws.

The committee is scheduled to meet on Wednesday, June 8. Devlin Gauthier’s proposed measure is on the subcommittee’s agenda.


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