Crisis pregnancy centers ordinance draws fired up crowd in Easthampton 

  • Easthampton Municipal Building FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/7/2022 8:29:50 PM
Modified: 7/7/2022 8:27:13 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Supporters and opponents of a proposed ordinance designed to stop deceptive advertising practices of pregnancy centers offering limited services packed the City Council chambers on Wednesday night, delivering emotional exchanges on the subject of abortion that led to one woman being removed by police. 

More than 100 people attended the meeting online and in-person with a number of people even sitting on the floor of the chambers.

Before City Council President Homar Gomez opened up public comment for the hearing, he indicated that council members would not be taking any action on the proposed ordinance.

“I just want the public to know that we are not voting tonight,” said Gomez. “We are planning to send this back to committee and discuss it there again, and we’ll have a recommendation from the committee. We don’t know what that recommendation will be — they table it, remove it without prejudice or bring something back with different language. … But as advertised, you are allowed to talk.”

Despite the notice, it was clear that many in attendance came with the intent of speaking their mind, either dashing to the podium or raising their hands. Gomez opened up public comment to online attendees first.

Danielle O’Banion, who identified herself as a family medical doctor from Easthampton who has cared for prenatal patients, delivered babies, counseled patients on contraception and provided abortions, described how so-called crisis pregnancy centers lack employees with medical training or licensure. She said many provide false or misleading information such as that abortions increase the risk of breast cancer and will make it difficult to become pregnant. She urged the council to vote in favor of the ordinance.

“This is only about protecting the public from deceptive practices,” O’Banion said. 

Jessica Brittain of Westfield said she felt that young teens should have the opportunity to weigh both sides when presented with an unplanned pregnancy.

“I feel that there shouldn’t be any laws looking at this as deceptive marketing just because they don’t offer a full-service scope of pregnancy services,” she said.

When Gomez opened up comments to in-person attendees, people stampeded to the podium forming a line that stretched to the back corner of the room.

A total of 50 people from the city and beyond, both online and in-person, voiced their thoughts on the proposal for nearly two hours. Some cited concerns about the effect the ordinance could have on the Bethlehem House Inc., a city nonprofit that describes itself online as offering free pregnancy resources for women in crisis.

Among those who spoke in-person was Kelly Wilcox, executive director of Clearway Clinic, which is described online as a women’s health clinic with locations in Worcester and Springfield.

Under the state’s Corporations Division, the nonprofit organization is registered as a religious entity.

“I represent six physicians and six nurses and we serve in a state-licensed medical facility serving western and central Massachusetts. We provide free health care. Last year, we helped over 600 families,” she said. “We provide a vital service to women and families for early health care. We provide evidence-based, comprehensive, informed consent on all options. Women come to us because they do not want to go to an adoption agency, obstetrician or an abortion clinic when they do not know what to do with their pregnancy. They need unbiased education and health care. They need a diagnosis.”

‘Care with an agenda’

Adversely, Cheryl Zoll, the CEO of Tapestry Health and a resident of Amherst, said she came forward to clarify what a licensed medical clinic does. She described crisis pregnancy centers that are not clear about their intentions as “care with an agenda.”

“From our perspective, coming to a medical facility, it’s a sacred trust. A person is putting their body and their life in your hands when they come in to see you and we all have an obligation to make sure the care that people provide is fully informed, evidence-based and respectful of the needs and desires of the person coming in,” Zoll said.

Ryan Berard, statewide organizer and director of Organizing and Elections for Planned Parenthood, said he was proud of the health care staff available at their centers. He noted that many of the people who come to their centers are in a state of fear and vulnerability.

“They don’t deserve to be deceived. They don’t deserve to be lied to,” said Berard, urging the council to pass the ordinance and saying that many other communities would likely follow suit. “Unfortunately, the places we’re talking about actively do that. And you have the opportunity as a council to say ‘No. Not in this town.’”

Attorney General Maura Healey issued an advisory Wednesday warning patients about crisis pregnancy centers not offering reproductive care. She said that most crisis pregnancy centers are not licensed medical facilities staffed by licensed doctors or nurses. Although some do offer ultrasounds, she said, they are often performed by unlicensed personnel, which lead to inaccurate or misleading results about a pregnancy.

“While crisis pregnancy centers claim to offer reproductive health care services, their goal is to prevent people from accessing abortion and contraception,” Healey said in a statement. “In Massachusetts, you have the right to a safe and legal abortion. We want to ensure that patients can protect themselves from deceptive and coercive tactics when seeking the care they need.”

At-Large City Councilor Owen Zaret said the proposed ordinance, which he brought forward, is about consumer protection. According to his proposal, violations of the ordinance could be subject to fines of up to $300. 

“It’s not about what happens when you get to the entity or service area. It’s about what occurs before that and that’s where the deceptive advertising piece comes in. It’s about stating through printed ads or … searches or suggesting that a service is performed that doesn’t exist when you get there,” he said.

Kristen Strezo, an at-large city councilor from Somerville, also voiced her support, saying she had put the same ordinance forward in her community.

“It does not shut down any existing CPC facilities. All that it is asking is that your constituents receive the best medical attention and accurate information, and not be deceived or told lies or any religious agenda,” she said. “It does not shut down clinics … it safeguards constituents.”

Religious fervor

At one point, the discussion unraveled from the topic of the ordinance and onto the morality of abortion.

“If every mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother right on down to Eve had made a choice for abortion along any part of that line of our lives, we wouldn’t be here right now,” said Wayne Worsham of Holyoke. “Women have to understand that when they get pregnant, that is a God-given responsibility that they must bring that child in the admonition of the Lord.”

Similarly, Hank Senecal of Easthampton said he was sickened by the commentary he had heard. Midway through his speech, he turned toward the crowd and began pointing and shouting.

“I’m so sick and tired of people fighting to murder. That’s what it amounts to. Stop it. You’re going to pay for it in the end. Everyone here that believes in abortion, you’re going to pay for it when your life is taken by the God that created you,” he said.

Throughout the hearing, Gomez banged his gavel multiple times in an effort to quell the outbursts of support or opposition. He threatened to reduce speakers’ time from two minutes to one minute and 30 seconds, and gave multiple warnings, several of which resulted in a back-and-forth with audience members.

“If I have to remove you from the room because you’re disrespectful to the council, I will,” he said.

Ultimately, one unnamed woman was removed by police after the public comment period was closed. She shouted at council members that the “other side” should be targeted and not just the crisis pregnancy centers, and yelled “God bless!” repeatedly as she was led out of the chambers.

As indicated at the beginning, the council unanimously approved sending the proposed ordinance back to the Ordinance Committee for further discussion.

“This is democracy, listening to people. We hear you,” said Gomez. “We are going to send this back to committee, they will review it and discuss it and bring it back.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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