San Francisco could be headed for a legal showdown over a proposed law targeting so-called crisis pregnancy centers that attempt to dissuade women from getting abortions.
Supervisor Malia Cohen said her legislation aims to protect pregnant women who are led to believe certain pregnancy centers provide abortions or emergency contraception, only to find they don’t offer those services, and counsel against the procedure instead.
Noncompliance with the proposed law could mean $500 fines for pregnancy centers per violation, forced dissemination of advertising that corrects the misleading information, or requirements to post notices about whether licensed medical professionals are on site or if abortions are provided there.
A clinic called First Resort — with locations, in San Francisco, Redwood City and Oakland — is the target of the legislation. It buys Google ads that make it one of the top results when users search “abortion San Francisco,” and the clinic’s website says it provides “counseling and medical care to women who are making decisions about unplanned pregnancies.”
The pregnancy center’s director of programs testified at the Board of Supervisors’ committee hearing Monday that her organization’s advertising is “clear” and “accurate.”
Representatives for First Resort call Cohen’s legislation a thinly veiled attempt to regulate free-speech rights.
“Supporters of the ordinance can provide no real-world justification for its adoption — they provide only speculation and hyperbole,” Maria Martinez-Mont, a spokeswoman for First Resort, said in an email. “The bill is unnecessary, will put The City at legal risk and is a distraction when so many other pressing issues face San Francisco.”
Martinez-Mont, however, stopped short of saying the organization would sue The City if the legislation is enacted.
Cohen said the law would hold up in court because it narrowly focuses on misleading ads. She added that the law is not directed at restricting anyone’s free-speech rights.
“This is a consumer-rights issue,” Cohen said. “This has little to do with where people are on the political spectrum.”
Similar laws in other cities have been thrown out by judges for being unconstitutional. Last summer, a federal judge in New York struck down a law that would have required such centers to post a notice that they do not provide abortions or have licensed medical staff. In January 2010, a nearly identical law targeted at faith-based pregnancy centers in Baltimore met a similar fate.
Cohen’s legislation passed the board’s Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee on Monday, although two supervisors said they wanted more proof that deception was taking place. Supervisor John Avalos said the next week should be spent gathering more solid evidence before the law goes before the full board Oct. 4.