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Law would require pregnancy centers to post signs if they don't offer abortions

The Baltimore City Council OKs legislation forcing crisis centers to notify if they won't provide abortion or birth-control referrals. The mayor can veto the law.

November 24, 2009|By Julie Scharper

Reporting from Baltimore — Crisis pregnancy centers that don't offer abortions or birth-control referrals would have to post notices saying they exclude those options under legislation approved Monday night by the Baltimore City Council.

The measure, which must still get a final ruling from the city's mayor, is thought to be the first of its kind in the nation.

Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, called the vote a victory for women's well-being. She cited a study by an advocacy group indicating that women have been misled at pregnancy centers that provide counseling, clothing and food for expectant mothers -- but not abortions.

"It's a step toward making sure that women have the information they need to make the right decision for their health and their future," Rawlings-Blake said.

But those who oppose abortion say the bill unfairly targets centers that provide information and assistance to poor women.

"The thing that's most disappointing about it is not the particular signs that are put up or the particular bill itself, but the message that it sends," said Maryland Right to Life legislative director Jeffrey D. Meister. "This is the first time in the United States that any elected body has chosen to vote to condemn pregnancy centers."

Similar measures have failed in the legislatures of several states, including Oregon and Texas, Meister said.

The bill, which passed the council by a 12-3 vote, awaits a decision by Mayor Sheila Dixon. Dixon supports abortion rights but has not indicated whether she backs the plan.

Under the initiative, which would affect four centers in the city, counseling centers would be required to post signs in English and Spanish stating that they do not "provide or make referrals for abortion or birth-control services."

If inspectors noted that the signs were not visible, the center would have 10 days to post a notice before incurring a $150 fine.

"At the very least now, these centers will have to put a sign up that lets women know that information about birth control and abortion won't be found within those doors," said Keiren Havens, vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, which supported the bill.

But the director of two pregnancy centers that would be affected said she was disturbed by the bill's implications.

"The passage of this piece of legislation may serve as serious encouragement to those who would like to see our organizations saddled with more laws and restrictions," said Carol A. Clews, executive director of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a nonprofit anti-abortion organization that receives donations from religious groups and has operated in Baltimore for 30 years.

The crisis centers are "very upfront about the services that we provide and the services we don't provide," Clews said. Most of their clients have already decided to continue their pregnancies but need help with utility bills, job referrals, maternity clothes or prenatal vitamins, she said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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