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Crisis-pregnancy centers to be gagged?

Two hot-button issues – abortion and free speech – are clashing in Washington state, as lawmakers attempt to regulate what is said in crisis pregnancy centers.

About 250 people packed the chambers of the state’s Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee earlier this week for a hearing on Senate Bill 6452, a proposed law that requires crisis pregnancy center counselors to communicate only “medically and scientifically accurate” reproductive health information – even though what is “accurate” has been hotly contested, even in the committee’s chambers.

The bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, for example, backed by a doctor from the University of Washington, claimed that in some cases, center volunteers have misled women to believe that abortion increases their risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Yet later in the hearing, former nurse Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, told the committee a 2009 study by the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center found that an abortion does indeed increase the risk of cancer by 40 percent.

The bill is supported by Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, which explains on its website: “Women go to these centers for medical care and unbiased pregnancy options counseling. Instead, they get false or misleading information about reproductive health care, their medical records are withheld and they are denied needed referrals for reproductive health care.”

Abortion opponents, however, decry the bill as an attempt to impose Planned Parenthood’s version of what is “accurate” and to clamp down on what counselors can and can’t say.

“Senator Rodney Tom’s bill to regulate pregnancy resource centers is not about protecting women, it’s about protecting the abortion industry,” said Janet Morana, co-founder of Silent No More Awareness Campaign, the world’s largest network of individuals harmed by abortion. “It’s another thinly veiled attempt to keep women away from centers where they are actually given a choice other than abortion.”

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, also expressed concern that the regulation could infringe on First Amendment free speech rights, a sentiment echoed by Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield:

“I think it’s akin to telling a pastor of a church what he can and can’t say to someone who chooses to come to him for counseling,” Zarelli said. “It’s regulating something they have no business regulating, and that is personal interaction between individuals.”

Washington has 46 “limited service pregnancy centers” in the state, many of which are established by faith-based and nonprofit organizations to offer classes, counseling – often including information on alternatives to abortion – and sometimes medical services, such as ultrasounds or pregnancy tests.

SB 6452, in addition to requiring “accurate” counseling, also dictates the centers disclose verbally in person, on the phone, by paper in multiple languages and in all advertisements that they do not offer abortion services, do not provide referrals to abortions and do not provide medical care. The bill also requires the multiple disclaimers be posted on the centers’ front doors and intake counters.

Paula Cullen, director of Life Services of Spokane, told the Catholic News Agency she fears the new regulations would have “a very chilling effect” on the pregnancy centers’ ability to help women.

Sen. Zarelli further scoffed in testimony, “When you walk into a Taco Bell, are they required to tell you that they don’t sell hamburgers?”

The bill also requires that centers allow clients to self-administer pregnancy tests, immediately provide the test results in writing and keep all health information private.

The debate over the bill has thus far been steeped in controversy, allegations and emotion.

Four college students testified that they had received deceiving and inaccurate information from the centers, including counseling about emotionally harmful consequences of sex outside of marriage, warnings of depression following an abortion and the inability of condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

Kate McLean of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Washington took exception to a crisis center’s website that claims, “Condoms provide zero percent protection against human papilloma virus (HPV).”

“The deceptive information that these pregnancy centers are providing are leading patients away from beneficial behaviors such as condom use – which could prevent unwanted pregnancies, help prevent abortions and help prevent sexually transmitted diseases,” McLean said.

On the other side, two women told the committee the information isn’t misleading, testifying to suffering depression and self-destructive behavior after they had abortions as teenagers. They told committee members that they wished they’d sought the advice of volunteers from a crisis pregnancy center instead.

Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, released a statement, mystified by the allegations that “harm” is being done by the centers.

“The entire time I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was waiting to hear something scandalous,” Backholm said of the testimony before the committee about alleged pregnancy center wrongdoing. “Surely someone had been kidnapped in an effort to prevent an abortion. But there was nothing. … So what is the risk of believing the [allegedly misleading] quotes provided by crisis pregnancy centers? First, teenagers will have less sex. Second, women will give birth to beautiful little babies. If you’re missing the urgency of the situation, join the club.”

He continued, “I’ll never defend someone who is knowingly disseminating false information. But no one believes it is the job of the Washington State Legislature to ensure that every word that is spoken or printed in Washington state is true.”

The committee did not make a decision on the bill earlier this week but has until Feb. 4 to take action. A companion bill, HB 2837, has been referred to the Washington House Health Care & Wellness Committee for consideration.