Saturday, 24 February 2024
Vague Massachusetts city ordinance not a ban, still targets pregnancy centers Brian Wangenheim/Unsplash

Vague Massachusetts city ordinance not a ban, still targets pregnancy centers

On March 24 of this year the City Council of Somerville, Mass., passed an ordinance that targets pregnancy help organizations. While some reporting on the ordinance has said it bans pregnancy centers, the ordinance does not outright ban them, while seemingly focusing on how pregnancy centers promote their services. 

Pregnancy Help News had reprinted one of the reports that conveyed the ordinance as a ban and is replacing that reprint with this article.

Somerville’s ordinance is titled, Deceptive Advertising Practices of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers, and as such appears to subscribe to the so-called “deceptive” advertising myth that abortion proponents frequently attempt to assign to pregnancy help centers.

Though the ordinance does not ban pregnancy centers, it apparently seeks to silence them because the ordinance is so vague. 

“"Deceptive" is a subjective word,” Heartbeat International General Counsel Danielle White said. 

“Those in favor of the ordinance claim that pregnancy centers shouldn't even exist, so they could use their vague language to penalize even the most innocuous advertising,” White said.

An example of how this vaguery could be exploited is this type of common pregnancy center advertising language: "Unexpected pregnancy? We can help." 

“Is that deceptive?” asked White. “Well, someone who believes that the only way to "help" an unexpected pregnancy is to end it might say that short advertisement is deceptive.”

“We know better,” she said. 

“But that's the problem with vague laws,” White explained. “They can be used to target those who disagree with the enforcement authority's viewpoint.”

[Click here to subscribe to Pregnancy Help News!]

Anne O’Connor, V.P. of Legal Affairs for the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) had also reviewed the language of this legislation. 

Based on her review, she said this ordinance does not, in fact, ban pregnancy centers, the NIFLA Media Team told Pregnancy Help News.

The ordinance’s focus on how pregnancy centers promote their services makes it similar to a Connecticut law currently being challenged by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). 

Public Act No. 21-17 targets Connecticut pregnancy help organizations, restricting their speech because they do not perform or refer for abortion, with the claim the omission of abortion as a service is ‘deceptive advertising.’

O’Connor served as co-counsel on NIFLA v. Becerra, the landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that state attempts to compel pro-abortion speech and advertising from pro-life pregnancy centers were unconstitutional. 

O’Connor stated that although they might want to, abortion advocates cannot “ban the good work of pregnancy centers.”

White pointed out that the Somerville ordinance seems to permit abortion providers to engage in deceptive advertising. This is because the ordinance only applies to "limited services pregnancy centers" -- which means anyone who offers a pregnancy-related service but does not provide or refer for abortions. If an organization provides or refers for abortions, the ordinance does not apply to it.

“I think an interesting question here is: Why is Somerville okay with women being deceived, as long as the deception comes from someone who performs or refers for abortions?” White asked. 

“Why does offering abortion allow an organization to deceive in its advertising?” she asked further. 

“If Somerville were concerned about women receiving accurate advertising, then the ordinance would apply to everyone, regardless of whether they offer or refer for abortions,” White said.

Tweet This: If Somerville were concerned about accurate advertising the ordinance would apply to everyone whether or not they offer/refer for abortion

At the same time the Somerville measure is not an outright ban of pregnancy centers, White noted what is at the heart of the vaguely crafted ordinance.

“So, this really isn't about preventing the deception of pregnant women,” she said. “It's about shaming pregnancy centers and unlawful discrimination against their viewpoint.”

Pregnancy Help News will continue coverage of the City of Somerville’s actions toward and against pregnancy help centers.

Editor’s note: Heartbeat International manages Pregnancy Help News.

Lisa Bourne

Lisa Bourne is Managing Editor of Pregnancy Help News and Content Writer for Heartbeat International. She has worked for more than 20 years in journalism and communication for the pro-life community, the Catholic Church, other Christian denominations, and secular media. 

Leave a comment