By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
A regulation proposed by Montgomery County officials Tuesday would require pregnancy centers run by abortion opponents to give women a disclaimer so they don't mistake the centers for medical clinics and so they understand the source of the information given to them.
The centers can appear to be abortion clinics and often bill themselves as places to get information on the procedure, but they seek to dissuade women from ending their pregnancies.
The camps in the abortion debate see those clinics, and the conversations there, often with women at moments of personal distress, through the prism of their advocacy and experience. Abortion rights supporters cast them as manipulative, dishonest and dangerous, and abortion opponents see them as lifesaving, last-ditch refuges that help those who decide against termination.
At issue in Montgomery, as in Baltimore, New York, West Virginia and other places such proposals have been taken up, is whether government officials should reach into the centers' activities by requiring them to provide certain information to those who walk in or call for advice. Montgomery officials who back the regulation -- it has seven co-sponsors on the nine-member County Council -- say it is a matter of consumer protection. A hearing on the measure is scheduled for Dec. 1.
"There is misleading and medically inaccurate information that's being provided to young women at these centers," said Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), who introduced the proposal. Accurate information is in the public's interest, she said. "It's just a disclosure regulation. It's not telling them they can't look for clients. It's not telling them they can't counsel clients."
But Jacqueline Stippich, executive director of the Shady Grove Pregnancy Center, which officials said is one of three centers that could be affected by the proposal, questioned the constitutionality of the regulations. "My question is, why are they singling us out?" she said. "Do you think it's constitutional for the government to single out one type of organization over another and to regulate what they are going to say?"
There is evidence that some information is inaccurate. The Shady Grove Pregnancy Center's Web site, for example, says abortion can lead to an "increased potential for breast cancer." But, according to the National Cancer Institute, "having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman's subsequent risk of developing breast cancer."
Stippich said the information about breast cancer is part of a list of things she tells women. "Would that be the one I would focus on? No. I would give you the whole list . . . just like you went to a doctor and you were having a procedure they would go through the list of possibilities," she said.
The disclaimer would say the information such centers provide "is not intended to be medical advice or to establish a doctor-patient relationship," according to the draft rules. It would also say that "the client should consult with a health care provider before proceeding on a course of action regarding the client's pregnancy." If written, the disclaimer would have to be in Spanish and English.
Jennifer Blasdell, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, said volunteer investigators working for the group went into clinics in Montgomery and across Maryland and were routinely given misleading or inaccurate advice. A 2006 report for Democrats on the U.S. House of Representatives committee on government reform found similar results.
"Research shows that significant psychological stress after an abortion is no more common than after birth," the House report said. But "one center said the suicide rate in the year after an abortion 'goes up seven times.' Another center said post-abortion stress . . . is 'much like' that seen in soldiers returning from Vietnam."
"Women seeking information pertaining to their health care need factual information and timely services. This legislation will help women know the limitations of the services offered by these facilities," Blasdell said.
Angela Martin, executive director of Maryland Right to Life, said the disclaimers are "completely unwarranted and unnecessary. They are essentially trying to impose unnecessary regulations on charities that are providing women with genuine alternatives to abortion."
Martin said the walk-ins by abortion rights advocates "basically involved a deceitful practice itself."
"It was really a form of entrapment. They were going into these pregnancy centers, digging for what they wanted to find, and of course they found it," Martin said.