Lawyers for Montgomery County on Thursday vigorously defended a controversial ordinance that requires certain anti-abortion pregnancy centers to post signs warning that the centers do not employ licensed medical personnel and urges pregnant women to “consult with a licensed health care provider.”
Their arguments, made over the course of an hour and a half before a dozen judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, were disputed by the centers, whose attorneys argued that the signs violated their right to free speech.
In 2010, the Montgomery County Council approved the law requiring that the centers post the disclaimers “conspicuously” in their waiting rooms.
But the law immediately rankled anti-abortion activists, who said it was an unconstitutional attempt to regulate the private conversations between center staff and the women who seek their counsel. And it became one of the most controversial measures ever approved by the county. Council members received thousands of e-mails from people who lived as far as Germany.
Shortly after the ordinance was passed, one of the pregnancy centers — Centro Tepeyac Silver Spring Women’s Center — filed a lawsuit in county district court, alleging that the law was unconstitutional. In June, a panel of federal judges ruled that the disclaimer violated free-speech rights, and the county appealed.
On Thursday, the county said the signs would be a “minimal” inconvenience to the centers. Moreover, the law protects women from false or misleading information given by some pregnancy centers and was needed to help protect women’s health, the county argued.
They cited a report by NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2008 and a minority congressional report in 2006 that found many pregnancy centers have provided “wildly inaccurate” information about the health effects of abortions.
The centers “are operated by volunteers who are, in general, poorly trained in women’s reproductive health issues and well trained in anti-choice propaganda,” the NARAL report said.
But Mariana Vera, the executive director of Centro Tepeyac, said that the center has well-trained volunteers and aims to keep its participants healthy and safe.
“They’re really concerned about regulating us,” she said of council members. “But they are misinformed.”
Centro Tepeyac, a Christian organization that has served the Silver Spring neighborhood for more than two decades, is located in two townhouses behind the county district court in Silver Spring. Vera said that staff members do encourage clients to get medical treatment but that they provide a valuable service as well.
One of the center’s fliers in Spanish, titled “Raquel’s Vineyard: Healing the pain of abortion, weekend after weekend,” lists what it says are possible aftereffects of abortion: suicidal thoughts, drug abuse, “the fear of God’s punishment.”
Vera said that despite the reports by NARAL and others, county officials have been unable to find a Centro Tepeyac participant who said she was deceived.
At the hearing, the judges grappled with whether the law was an overreach of power. One of the judges, Dennis Shedd, suggested that if the law is upheld, legislatures could also require abortion clinics to post signs saying, “Abortion can cause you problems for the rest of your life.”
Maryland has been at the forefront of legislation concerning pregnancy centers. Baltimore approved similar legislation, which was challenged by city pregnancy centers. The notice was also struck down, and the appellate judges heard the city’s appeal on Thursday.
It remains unclear how much the county has spent on the lawsuit.
The case is being handled by the county attorney’s office, which does not keep specific work hours for each case it handles, county spokesman Patrick Lacefield said.