ACLU endorses bill limiting pregnancy center rights

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WASHINGTON — A new congressional effort to police advertising by crisis pregnancy centers is unnecessary, pro-life advocates said, and unconstitutional, free-speech defenders charged.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has long promoted itself as the leading defender of freedom of speech and civil rights, is right in the middle of the controversy, promoting the new legislation—to the surprise of some.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, introduced March 30 the Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women's Services Act, which calls on the Federal Trade Commission to bar organizations from advertising that they provide abortion services when they do not. Just 12 House of Representatives members have cosponsored Maloney's bill, but leading abortion rights organizations, including NARAL Pro-choice America and the National Abortion Federation, are behind it.

The ACLU also endorsed it, and that stunned some who have defended the organization's work in the past.

"[W]hat about the First Amendment?" asked Nat Hentoff, a syndicated columnist and a former ACLU board member, according to The New York Sun. "When you have the state, with its power, deciding what is deceptive on something as thoroughly controversial as this, it goes against the very core, it seems to me, of the First Amendment."

Hentoff called the ACLU endorsement "a really extraordinary mistake." The ACLU advocacy for abortion rights has eclipsed its support for free speech, he told The Sun. "It's the problem the ACLU has had for years," Hentoff said.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, said some sections of the bill would probably be declared unconstitutional. One problem is the legislation seeks to control speech that might be misleading, but not necessarily untrue, he told The Sun.

"The same logic would justify regulating a broad range of political or historical statements," Volokh said, according to The Sun. "I think that's a pretty dangerous policy."

The proposal is unneeded, representatives of crisis pregnancy centers said.

"This legislation is unnecessary, as it aims to cure an ill that doesn't exist," Care Net President Kurt Entsminger said in a written release.

Care Net is a nationwide network of about 900 evangelical Christian, pregnancy help centers.

"This is nothing more than a routine attack on pregnancy centers by organizations seeking to limit their competition. We find it particularly curious that in her announcement Rep. Maloney did not cite one example of a pregnancy center that is engaging in deceptive advertising."

Tom Glessner, president of the National Institute of Family Life Advocates, said in a written statement that crisis pregnancy centers "are providing accurate, truthful and complete information to empower women to choose life. The only fraudulent activity in this area comes from those in the abortion industry who want to withhold truthful information from abortion-vulnerable women."

Kim Conroy, director of Sanctity of Human Life at Focus on the Family, said women deserve to be "fully informed of all the facts and have accurate medical information prior to getting an abortion.

"And, they deserve to get that information from an entity that is not going to financially profit from their decision," she said.

Conroy also stressed her organization's commitment to its Option Ultrasound Program, "which helps clinics provide accurate medical information with the utmost integrity for those women considering abortion," she said.

In announcing the introduction of her bill, Maloney said in a written release that some crisis pregnancy centers "should be called 'Counterfeit Pregnancy Centers.' They have the right to exist, but they shouldn't have the right to deceive in order to advance their particular beliefs."

Others took exception to Maloney's assertion. Pro-life advocates have long argued that abortion clinics, including Planned Parenthood, do not fully disclose the long-term physical and mental impacts associated with abortion.

"We agree that women deserve truthful, accurate information about their reproductive health care choices," said Peggy Wolock, general counsel for Heartbeat International. "Too many women are not told of the emotional and physical risks of abortion until it's too late. If we truly want to empower women, we need to come alongside them, support them, and give them good information about fetal development, abortion procedures, and their options."

Maloney's bill is H.R. 5052. There is not a companion bill in the Senate.

Christian Newswire contributed to this report.