Ignoring Precedent, Appeals Court Blocks Truth-in-Advertising Ordinance for Deceptive Crisis Pregnancy Centers in Baltimore

Center for Reproductive Rights pledges to consider all available means of continuing defense of ordinance aimed at informing women of all available reproductive options
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(PRESS RELEASE) In judicial proceedings that the dissenting judge likened to a “kangaroo court,” a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today upheld a decision to block enforcement of a truth-in-advertising ordinance passed by the city of Baltimore regulating so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” in the city.

Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) frequently advertise themselves as clinics offering a full range of reproductive health services but are in fact non-medical organizations that use deceptive practices to dissuade women from ending pregnancies or obtaining birth control. The ordinance would have required all CPCs in Baltimore to post signs in their waiting rooms indicating that they do not provide or make referrals for abortion or comprehensive birth control services. 

The Center for Reproductive Rights joined the City of Baltimore to defend the ordinance in June 2010 against a lawsuit filed by the Archbishop of Baltimore, a local parish, and the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns seeking to block enforcement of the ordinance.  

In January 2011, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the CPC and its allies before the city was even able to submit evidence in support of its case, and the City and CRR immediately appealed the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

“Today’s ruling strikes an unjustified blow against women’s health and emboldens the anti-choice forces that seek to keep women in the dark about their reproductive options,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“To hold that crisis pregnancy centers have a right to engage in deceptive practices aimed at preventing women from accessing the full range of reproductive care available to them is to turn the U.S. Constitution completely upside down.

“We continue to stand by the City of Baltimore and the other municipalities nationwide that have taken courageous action to protect their residents from the shameful practices of organizations bent on preventing women from obtaining timely access to family planning and abortion services.”

Judge Robert B. King, dissenting from the majority opinion written Judge Paul V. Niemeyer and joined by Judge G. Steven Agee, called today’s ruling “indefensible,” writing:

“The evidence relied on by the City Council [in passing the ordinance] revealed that limited-service pregnancy centers were using questionable tactics to delay women from accessing abortions. Such tactics included counseling women to undergo pregnancy tests and sonograms that were scheduled weeks after their initial pregnancy center visit, and misinforming women about abortion services, including when abortions could be lawfully obtained.”

Baltimore passed the ordinance following two reports that documented a pattern of deceptive practices by crisis pregnancy centers.  In 2006, U.S. Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) released a study finding that crisis pregnancy centers often use delay tactics to stall women from getting abortion or birth control services while subjecting them to anti-abortion and anti-contraception propaganda. In addition, they often mislead women, providing false factual information about contraception and the mechanics and risks of abortion procedures. Rep. Waxman’s findings were confirmed in a 2008 report which specifically looked at the practices of such facilities in Maryland. The City Council also heard testimony from numerous women complaining about deceptive practices.

Said Stephanie Toti, senior staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“Women seeking birth control and abortion services have the right to receive complete and truthful medical information that will help them make fully informed choices about their reproductive health.

“Abundant research has shown that the mission of so-called ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ is to mislead women about their options, disregarding patient confidentiality and denying women factual and accurate information.

“The women of Baltimore deserve better. They deserve the protections that this ordinance was designed to provide, and that this panel of judges has decided to deny them.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights is currently reviewing all available means of continuing its defense of the truth-in-advertising ordinance.