Easthampton councilor wants to withdraw pregnancy center ordinance, rewrite it

  • Easthampton at-large city councilor Owen Zaret is requesting to withdraw an ordinance designed to stop deceptive advertising practices of pregnancy centers that offer limited services. The idea produced two contentious public hearings. Zaret intents to rewrite the ordinance and resubmit it in about a month. gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2022 6:01:04 PM

EASTHAMPTON — More than three months after proposing an ordinance designed to stop deceptive advertising practices of so-called crisis pregnancy centers that offer limited services, at-large City Councilor Owen Zaret wants to withdraw the measure that produced two contentious public hearings.

In a letter to his council colleagues in advance of Wednesday’s council meeting, Zaret asked to remove the ordinance’s proposed language. He intends to rewrite the ordinance and submit it again for review in about a month.

“While legislatively sound, our conversations brought up some potential complications and pitfalls inherent in the language,” he wrote in the letter.

The proposed ordinance produced two contentious, and at times pugnacious, public hearings — one of which drew more than 100 people who delivered emotional exchanges on the subject of abortion.

Several people who attended the council’s public hearings cited concerns about the effect the ordinance could have on Bethlehem House Inc., a city nonprofit that describes itself as a pro-life ministry at which volunteers provide women and their families facing a crisis pregnancy with free diapers, wipes, baby clothes, strollers, pack-and-plays and car seats.

The nonprofit receives support from the Springfield Diocese’s Annual Catholic Appeal.

In August, the Bethlehem House building, as well as signs, the sidewalk and benches on the property were vandalized. One message on the sidewalk reads, “If abortion’s aren’t safe, neither are you!” and another on side-by-side benches reads, “Jane’s Revenge.”

While no one has taken responsibility for the vandalism in Easthampton, Jane’s Revenge has been cited in the national news media in recent months as an extreme  abortion rights group behind acts of vandalism and violence around the country. The Easthampton case remains under investigation.

In his letter, Zaret reinforced that the Bethlehem House was never a target and does not “fall under the auspices of the ordinance.” He said that a simple review of the definitions contained within the section will show that the Easthampton nonprofit “does not meet the criteria for a pregnancy center as defined in the proposed language.”

Councilors raised concerns that the phrasing of “deceptive practices” was not well delineated.

Under the original drafted ordinance, no limited services pregnancy center, with the intent to perform a pregnancy-related service, would be allowed to make or disseminate “any statement concerning any pregnancy-related service or the provision of any pregnancy-related service that is deceptive, whether by statement or omission, and that a limited services pregnancy center knows or reasonably should know to be deceptive” through public advertising via various mediums including newspapers or the internet.

Violations of the ordinance could be subject to fines of up to $300.

The Ordinance Committee recommended approval of this initial language by 3-0 vote. After a July 6 public hearing, the council sent the measure back to the Ordinance Committee for further review, where it has remained.

Zaret said that the goal of the proposed ordinance was to protect people from deceptive advertising from crisis pregnancy centers, and it was not a judgment on anyone’s personal beliefs.

Within the next month or so, he intends to bring a new version of the proposed ordinance before the council.

“My goal remains to ensure municipal protections for individuals seeking reproductive care or gender-affirming care,” Zaret said. “This includes ensuring people are not deceived by advertising for CPCs (crisis pregnancy centers) suggesting they offer services which they in fact do not.

“Multiple state agencies have issued consumer warnings and I plan to focus on that as a directive for municipal policy. Our municipality has an obligation to protect individuals’ rights to bodily autonomy.”

The City Council meeting on Wednesday takes place at 6 p.m., both in person in the council chambers at 50 Payson Ave. and remotely via Google Meet.

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