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Women at Risk: Deceptive Practices

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The New York City Council has taken action to protect women from the "deceptive practices of some pregnancy service centers." Intro 371, an amendment to the Administrative Code, is intended to insure that consumers, meaning women who are or may be pregnant, "have access to comprehensive information about and timely access to all types of reproductive health services including, but not limited to, accurate pregnancy diagnosis, prenatal care, emergency contraception and abortion."

Following hearings called by the Committee on Women's Issues, the Council found that some so-called pregnancy centers mislead women about what services are actually provided, what referrals they make, and the availability of licensed medical providers on-site. Casting the Bill, Intro 371 as consumer protection legislation, the Council found that these deceptive practices, are used in advertising and on the premises, resulting in interference with access to reproductive health, including early prenatal care which is a pronounced objective of the United States Department of Health and Human Services as well as the federal centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bill spells out that "delayed access to abortion and emergency contraception poses a threat to a public health... and creates increased health risks, financial burdens, and may eliminate a woman's ability to obtain these services altogether, severely limiting her reproductive health options."

The centers cater to a "vulnerable population," who, because of immigration status, domestic violence or other fears, may be reluctant to disclose their experiences at such centers. This is of particular concern, the Council noted, since the centers are unlicensed and lack any oversight. They are not covered by laws which prevent the dissemination of private information, some of which could be damaging to the patient.

"Pregnancy service centers," under the law refers to any facility which is to provide services to women who are or may be pregnant and either offers obstetric ultrasounds, sonograms or prenatal care; or has the appearance of a licensed medical facility.

Appearance became relevant to the Council based on reports that the offices look like doctors' offices, and that personnel wear uniforms usually seen on actual health care workers. Also, they tend to be located near organizations that do actually provide women's health services, such as Planned Parenthood, causing confusion amongst the clients. In addition, they use names that would cause people to mistake their purpose. The names are variations of "Women's Center," "Expectant Mother Care," and "Pregnancy Resource Services."

The centers will be required to disclose in English and Spanish on the premises and in their advertising their medical status, whether or not they provide referrals to abortion clinics and emergency contraception. They will also become mandated reporters of child abuse. Violations shall result in civil penalties ranging from $200 to $2,500 and may also be temporarily closed or, permanently after multiple violations.

The bill was supported by pro-choice organizations including NARAHL, NYCLU and Planned Parenthood. Opponents of abortion and of the legislation challenge it claiming that it intrudes on free speech. However, the bill does not regulate speech but requires that statements made to the public and to individuals seeking assistance, must not be deceived or misled by language or environment.

"The free speech rights of pregnancy service centers and their staff are critical to the robust public debate about a range of topics, including abortion," said Melissa Goodman (not related), senior counsel for Reproductive Rights, NYCLU. "This legislation is carefully crafted to both preserve the centers' first amendment rights and to ensure that women don't leave a non-medical service center mistakenly believing they have received medical care from licensed medical professionals."

Intro 371 was passed by a vote of 39 in favor, 9 opposed, 1 abstention and 2 excused. It awaits the Mayor's signature.