Amherst eyes bylaw to curb crisis pregnancy centers’ deceptive practices

  • Blayne Wittig, executive director of Options for Women of California, left, Debbie Whittaker, nurse manager, center, and Christine Vatuone, president and CEO of Informed Choices, talk at Informed Choices, a crisis pregnancy center in Gilroy, Calif. A California law regulating anti-abortion pregnancy centers has led to a Supreme Court clash at the intersection of abortion and free speech. The centers say a law requiring them to tell pregnant clients the state has family planning and abortion care available at little or no cost violates the centers’ free speech rights. Informed Choices is what Vatuone describes as a “life-affirming” pregnancy center. Even as it advertises “free pregnancy services” and promises in signs on its door and inside to discuss all options with pregnant women, Informed Choices exists to steer women away from abortion. AP FILE PHOTO

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Published: 4/28/2022 7:57:03 PM
Modified: 4/28/2022 7:55:35 PM

AMHERST — A town councilor, concerned with threats to legal abortion and the creation of so-called crisis pregnancy centers where individuals might be duped into believing they are getting necessary medical services, is bringing forward a proposal to confront these sites.

At the Town Council meeting Monday, District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier presented a draft bylaw titled “Concerning Deceptive Advertising Practices of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers,” that, if adopted, will levy $300 fines against those “who publicly engage in false and deceptive advertising, or disseminate misinformation or disinformation regarding pregnancy-related services.”

Devlin Gauthier explained her motivation is to combat what are known as crisis pregnancy centers, which she said pose as legitimate medical centers to attract pregnant clients who may be seeking an abortion, but instead don’t provide any medical or clinical care, and offer only a strictly pro-life message, often with what she says is erroneous information.

“This is really a critical step in protecting and defending abortion rights,” Devlin Gauthier said of the bylaw.

Devlin Gauthier said she sees the bylaw as furthering actions that councilors have previously taken, including in 2019 when they endorsed the state’s ROE Act, which removed barriers and restrictions on abortion access, and made a statement in support of abortion rights in the town, state and country.

“We are facing an attack on abortion rights on a national scale every single day,” Devlin Gauthier said, adding that crisis pregnancy centers can bring that mission to the local level.

The bylaw, she notes, won’t ban these sites from existing, only from doing deceptive advertising and presenting false information to their clients, many of whom are young and poor.

Among the false information they are providing about abortions, according to Devlin Gauthier, are claims of an increased risk of breast cancer, the possibility of sterility, and greater likelihood of suicide and “post-abortion stress disorder.”

No crisis pregnancy center yet exists in Amherst, though there are 29 in the state, Devlin Gauthier said, with offices in Easthampton, Greenfield and Springfield.

“Having a bylaw which prohibits their engagement in deceptive advertising will ensure that that strategy does not prevail,” Devlin Gauthier said.

Other councilors praised Devlin Gauthier for her work on the topic, with District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis saying that protecting a woman’s right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term is important. DeAngelis brought forward the resolution for abortion rights in 2019.

Dr. Nate Horwitz-Willis, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts, issued a statement in support of the measure, as well, and praised Devlin Gauthier’s actions.

“People who are pregnant deserve access to a full range of unbiased and medically accurate reproductive health care to help them make their own decisions about their pregnancy,” Horwitz-Willis said. “Limited services pregnancy centers, or crisis pregnancy centers, spread disinformation and cause undue harm, particularly in communities of color and with young people that already face systemic barriers to accessing care.”

Many councilors who spoke addressed the technical aspects of the bylaw, such as the enforcement mechanisms, and whether inspection services could handle the issuing of $300 fines for violations.

Devlin Gauthier said enforcement would be predominantly complaint-driven, with people reporting if they have seen deceptive advertising in print or online. Some may be more obvious, such as an advertisement in the Amherst Bulletin or a person handing out leaflets on a street corner, though many could be more challenging to determine, such as if the ads are on social media or other online locations.

The proposed bylaw was referred to the Governance, Organization and Legislation committee and will also need to be reviewed by the town attorney.

Devlin Gauthier said that legally it should pass muster, noting that a similar ordinance was adopted in Somerville in March, and has also been put in place by legislators in the state of Connecticut.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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