Pregnancy centers must post details

BALTIMORE — Crisis pregnancy centers in Baltimore must display signs stating they do not provide abortions or birth control referrals under a measure approved by the City Council on Monday night and thought to be the first of its kind.

Council president Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat who was lead sponsor of the initiative, called the measure a victory for women's well-being. She cited a study by an advocacy group indicating that women have been misled at pregnancy centers, which provide counseling, clothing and food for expectant mothers — but not abortions.

"It's a step towards making sure that women have the information they need to make the right decision for their health and their future," Rawlings-Blake said.

Abortion opponents say that the bill unfairly targets centers, which they say provide accurate information and needed assistance to poor women.

"The thing that's most disappointing about it is not the particular signs that are put up or the particular bill itself but the message that it sends," said Jeffrey Meister, the Maryland Right to Life legislative director. "This is the first time in the United States that any elected body has chosen to vote to condemn pregnancy centers."

Similar measures have failed in the legislature in several states, including Oregon and Texas, Meister said. A similar bill is being considered by the Montgomery County (Md.) Council.

The Baltimore bill, which passed 12-3, awaits a decision by Mayor Sheila Dixon, who could either sign or veto the measure, or allow it to become law without her signature. A supporter of abortion rights, Dixon has not indicated whether she backs the plan.

Under the initiative, which would affect four centers, counseling centers would be required to post signs in English and Spanish explaining they do not "provide or make referral for abortion or birth-control services." If inspectors note that the signs are not visible, the center will be given 10 days to post a notice before incurring a $150 fine.

The head of two of the pregnancy centers that would be affected said that she was disturbed by the implications of the legislation.

"The passage of this piece of legislation may serve as serious encouragement to those who would like to see our organizations saddled with more laws and restrictions," said Carol Clews, executive director of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns, a nonprofit anti-abortion organization that has operated in the city for 30 years.

Council members who voted against the bill asked why similar demands were not placed on abortion clinics.