Austin City Council Reconsiders Crisis Pregnancy Centers

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This week, the Austin City Council will consider amending or repealing an ordinance that requires Crisis Pregnancy Centers to disclose that they don't provide or make referrals for abortion, or provide FDA-approved birth control. While I am very confident that our council members remain staunchly pro-choice — the ordinance passed unanimously in 2010 — the question is how Austin's ordinance can survive repeated lawsuits from the right-wing, and what other tools are available to warn women about these insidious anti-choice “resource centers.”

Crisis Pregnancy Centers are essentially anti-choice entities that attempt to mislead, intimidate, and coerce young women into keeping their unwanted pregnancies. While many claim to be “clinics,” in reality there are no medically licensed staff working at the centers, and many provide no health care services at all. Instead, the focus of these CPC's is to stop women from exercising their right to an abortion, and prevent them from avoiding unplanned pregnancies in the future.

NARAL Texas has more information about these insidious organizations:

CPCs not only fail to address the range of choices available to women; they often attempt to dissuade women from seeking abortion by presenting factually inaccurate and misleading information. Women seeking services are often told abortion leads to breast cancer and psychological distress, or “post-abortion syndrome”–despite no medical evidence backing either claim.¬†Women may also be shown intentionally upsetting images or receive false information about their own pregnancies.

In 2009, the Texas Legislature shifted $4 million in family planning funds to these unlicensed, unregulated centers. CPC's are all over Texas.  Austin has a number of these centers, which claim to “minister” to women with unexpected, unplanned, or unwanted pregnancies. In reality, CPC's don't provide women with a comprehensive list of options, which includes abortion, and they don't provide scientifically accurate information about how women can prevent future unplanned pregnancies.

In 2010, Council Member Bill Spelman sponsored and passed an ordinance requiring CPCs to post signage indicating that they don't provide abortions or FDA-approved birth control. Last fall, several CPC operators sued the City, claiming that the lawsuit violated their First Amendment rights. The CPC plaintiffs — the Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin, Catholic Charities of Central Texas, the Austin Pregnancy Resource Center, and the South Austin Pregnancy Resource Center — say that the City's ordinance doesn't place such burdens on other providers. However, as The Austin Chronicle notes, abortion providers are required by the State of Texas to disclose that they provide abortions.

What's so ironic is that CPC's are arguing against compelling speech, yet at the same time anti-choice activists are in favor of compelling unnecessary speech through their beloved sonogram law. In the lawsuit against the CPC's, anti-choice organizations are arguing that compelling speech violates their First Amendment rights, even though the signage is accurate (unlike the information provided by CPC's). In the sonogram law, the State of Texas is arguing that it's all fine and dandy to require doctors to perform mandatory sonograms of women seeking abortions, even though the speech they're compelling is medically unnecessary. Compelling speech is fine for the anti-choice movement when it serves their aim of pressuring and intimidating women into not having abortions. But when the speech actually gives women useful, important information — Whoa, Nelly!

This week, the Austin City Council is looking for a way to amend the ordinance such that the City can successfully defend the ordinance in court. Meanwhile, the city legal department has a competing agenda item calling for the repeal of the CPC signage ordinance. Ideally, the amended ordinance — put forward by Council Members Spelman and Martinez — would remove specific language that has failed in other legal tests, leaving a CPC ordinance that can successfully be defended in court.

City Legal's concern may include the amount of time and money spent defending the CPC ordinance. It raises a valuable question: how much taxpayer dollars should we spend defending ordinances that uphold our community values? Similarly, council could explore whether there are other ways to accomplish the same aim of giving women warning that CPC's do not provide comprehensive services or medically accurate information, nor are they under any obligation to do so.

The right wing and anti-choice organizations have an immense amount of funding available to fight these ordinances and drag every other pro-choice or anti-anti-choice effort through the courts. It's part of their strategy to chip away at abortion rights in America. However, if the ordinance stands, Austinites have the chance to give anti-choice organizations a taste of their own medicine. While the CPC ordinance is in court, it is not being enforced. Should the City prevail and the CPC become an enforceable ordinance, CPC's could be ticketed for failing to comply. It would be a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $450 in municipal court. Should the City prevail and the CPC's refuse to post their warning signs, an orchestrated effort to call code compliance on them could result in thousands of dollars in fines levied against the centers.

NARAL has a handy one-click way to contact the entire Austin City Council in support of holding CPC's accountable. The anti-choicers are very well organized and will flood Council inboxes with blather against this effort. Make sure our side has its voice heard as well.

I'll have more coverage of the vote tomorrow.

Disclaimer: I'm on the board of NARAL Texas because I am super-duper pro-choice. If you want to support NARAL, we have a fundraiser this week. Click here for more information.  


About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Central Texas. She is also a fan of UCONN women's basketball and breakfast tacos.

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