Pregnancy center ordinance back for review

  • Easthampton Municipal Building GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/10/2022 7:35:22 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A month after withdrawing a controversial ordinance designed to halt deceptive advertising practices of so-called crisis pregnancy centers, At-large Councilor Owen Zaret has reworked and refiled the ordinance for council review.

The new ordinance is also designed to protect access to reproductive health services and the privacy of people seeking them, by preventing the use of city resources to disclose or pursue action against anyone seeking such services, such as at the behest of another state.

“The language, at its core, recognizes our duty to protect access to public health, and to protect those living in or visiting our city,” Zaret wrote in a letter to the City Council. “The preamble and findings are intended to create a clear picture of intention as well as basis for the need for this legislation.”

The council forwarded the ordinance to the Ordinance Committee at its Nov. 2 meeting for further review. Even though there were a number of people in attendance, only one person spoke on the new language during public comment.

“You’re allowed to address any concern or question that you have and we are not allowed to answer but eventually we can address this concern that you bring forward to the council,” City Council President Homar Gomez said over some grumbles from those in attendance.

Easthampton resident Bob Sass said the new language had more problems than the previous one, and that the ordinance could be a violation of the First Amendment if enacted.

“The city of Easthampton is playing a very, very dangerous game, trying to codify an advisory as a law and ordinance,” Sass said. “This ordinance puts a financial risk target on the back of the city. We have to consider the entire resident population and not the subset population or the special interests of a councilor or two on the Council.”

Michael King of the Wakefield-based nonprofit Massachusetts Family Institute sent out an Oct. 31 email urging people to attend the meeting, and called the new ordinance “unconstitutional,” “unnecessary” and “unethical.” He advocated for residents to come out to protect pregnancy care centers throughout the state.

“Be encouraged! We just showed up with several advocates for life and free speech in Framingham, the most recent city that is trying to pass such an ordinance,” he wrote. “We outnumbered those that spoke up three to one at the meeting. As we continue to outnumber the opposition in Worcester, Easthampton, Framingham, Cambridge, and Somerville; I am more and more convinced that there are more pro-life and pro-free speech advocates than the opposing side on this issue in Massachusetts!”

New ordinance

The language used in the ordinance was developed with advice from reproductive advocates including the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund, Reproductive Equity Now, The Lawyering Project and the National Women’s Law Center, according to Zaret’s letter. He also received input from Carrie Baker, professor and chairperson of the program for the study of women and gender at Smith College, and Jenifer McKenna, program director of The Alliance: State Advocates for Women’s Rights & Gender Equality.

The ordinance is adapted from one by the Salem City Council and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who Zaret says “recognized the potential gaps between state law and municipal protections and implemented language to remedy those gaps.”

In the ordinance, he acknowledges consumer advisories from Attorney General Maura Healey and the state Department of Public Health and states that so-called limited-services pregnancy centers shall not make or disseminate any information concerning any pregnancy-related service that is deceptive — whether by statement or omission — through any form of advertising.

Any city employee found to have violated the ordinance shall be subject to disciplinary action by the director of human resources. Any city contractor who violates the ordinance could be subject to review or could have their contract potentially terminated.

According to Zaret, the ordinance does not envision any local enforcement, but offers the city as a resource for complaints to the state.

Initially, Precinct 5 Councilor Dan Rist said at the meeting that he intended to oppose Zaret’s ordinance because he believes the issue should be legislated at the state level rather than locally. He suggested that the Ordinance Committee consider shifting the language into more of a resolution than an ordinance.

“I point that out because the liability for the First Amendment is dangerous for us. And that the last ordinance that was submitted costs our very limited City Council budget $3,000,” Rist said. “Because of the nature of this ordinance, it will have to have that kind of adjudication and I fear it will cost a great deal. And a resolution is the opinion and will of the council and does not need legal review.”

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