By Jill Colvin
CITY HALL — Pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates sparred for nearly six hours at City Hall Tuesday over new legislation aimed at regulating limited service pregnancy centers, with each side accusing the other of deceiving vulnerable young women.
The bill, co-sponsored by Upper East Side City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, targets "crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs). The centers provide women with free pregnancy tests, counseling and other services, but are openly anti-abortion, aggressively pushing women to consider other options, according to the bill's sponsors.
The centers have come under fire in recent months from pro-choice advocates who accuse them of intimidating women, providing false information, and masquerading as full-service reproductive health centers when they're not.
But defenders say CPCs provide women with a valuable service and are being unfairly targeted because of their views.
Theresa Bonopartis, the director of Lumina, which provides support to women after they’ve had abortions, said the City Council completely overlooked the harm caused by the procedure.
“It’s very contradictory. They’re talking about the trauma women are going to feel at the crisis pregnancy centers, while they deny the trauma of an abortion,” she said.
Under the new rules, CPCs would have to disclose that they don't provide abortions or contraception and would not provide referrals for either. The information would be posted on signs in their centers and on their websites and ads.
Centers would also have to disclose that they have no doctors on site, and would be forced to keep all the information they collect confidential. Violators would be fined up to $2,500 for repeated offenses and could be shut down.
Planned Parenthood President and CEO Joan Malin applauded the legislation as an important protection for young women at a Women’s Issues Committee hearing Tuesday.
In testimony submitted to the Council, she said about a year ago her staffers began hearing "alarming stories" from patients who had visited CPCs.
"Their goal is to intentionally deceive and misinform women about their reproductive health care options," she claimed.
New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman urged the Council to revise the draft legislation so centers weren't targeted solely because they don't provide abortions.
Nonetheless, she described CPCs as "fake medical facilities" where women are "hoodwinked [and] deceived at a particularly vulnerable place in their lives."
But opponents, who packed the hearing wearing pink stickers that read, "Oppose Unfair Pregnancy Center Regs!," railed against the bill and accused the Council of writing a law to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.
"It's an affront to First Amendment rights and constitutional law and good medical protest," EMC FrontLine Pregnancy Centers founder and president Christopher Slattery, who runs a dozen CPCs across the city, told DNAinfo.
He said the fact that no women not affiliated with a pro-choice group testified at the hearing about negative experiences at one of the centers was proof that they're not doing anything wrong.
"Where’s the real evidence?" he asked. "There’s not even an affidavit or a single bit of testimony from anyone."
Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras said the fact that women did not come forward was not a valid defense.
"The women we're protecting with this legislation would not necessarily come to testify at this hearing," she said, citing privacy concerns.
Despite the vocal opposition, Ferreras said she planned to move forward with the bill.
"I still remain steadfast in support of this legislation," she said. "This is really about protecting a woman's right to be able to receive services that were advertised."
Sean Degidon, the Pro-Life/Pro-Family Director at the National Traditionalist Caucus, accused the Council of basing its case on hearsay from pro-choice advocates.
“To suggest that these are disinterested parties seeking to guarantee women unbiased information about abortion is like trusting the oil industry to draft regulations on the selling of electric cars!” he said in exasperation.
The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian legal group, argued the proposal violates state and federal law by discriminating against CPCs and violating their freedom of speech but Slattery said he has no doubt the legislation will pass.
"There’s no doubt about it. The advocates for this bill, their minds are made up," he said.
Nonetheless, he believes any bill approved by the full Council and signed by the mayor would be overturned in court.