The 'threat' of free services for pregnant women

Marta Mossburg says an abortion-rights agenda is driving city's harassment of Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns

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It's not enough to tell a woman who enters a crisis pregnancy clinic in Baltimore City that she will not be able to have an abortion there. A center must post a sign to share the information — or at least that is what City Council members voted for in 2009.

The law is on hold pending yet another court decision. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month rejected for technical reasons a previous decision that overturned the law on freedom of speech grounds, and sent the case back to lower court.

According to proponents of the law, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (who was its lead sponsor in the City Council), it is all about truth in advertising. As city lawyer Suzanne Sangree told The Sun last week, "The city's position has been all along that this is a straightforward consumer protection measure."

First, abortion providers are not grocery stores, and the women who seek them out are not "consumers." To call them that makes them and the babies growing in them commodities and downgrades the decision to end a life to the significance of choosing between breakfast cereals.

Second, if the case were about transparency, then the City Council — and state legislators — should get busy passing legislation requiring abortion clinics to post how many abortions they have provided, how many women have been seriously injured or died in a clinic and whether the clinic has ever lost its license.

That would be useful information, because abortion is a serious medical procedure that should be performed by qualified medical professionals. And quality care is not always the norm in Maryland. In February, Jennifer McKenna-Morbelli died in a Germantown clinic from complications from an abortion at 33 weeks of her pregnancy. The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene suspended the licenses of four clinics, including one in Baltimore, in May after finding they posed a serious health and safety risk to patients. And then there is the case of Steven Chase Brigham and Nicola Riley, who operated an illegal late-term abortion clinic in Elkton where one patient required emergency surgery to save her life.

I do not expect legislators to force abortion clinics to be open with their data, however, because the crisis pregnancy center law was never about transparency — it was about pushing an agenda.

The impetus for it was a series of reports by NARAL Pro-Choice America, including one on Maryland, alleging crisis pregnancy centers were a "growing threat to women's health." Their crime: providing free pregnancy tests, parenting classes, diapers and baby supplies. Worse, according to a 2008 report by NARAL on Maryland, "One of the most unsettling aspects of CPCs is their effective targeting of the most vulnerable: young, poor, and minority women."

What could be more sinister than helping young, poor black and Latina women find the means to care for their children? The verdict from the reports is that not providing abortions, or counseling women against abortions, is dangerous. Thus entered the City Council to protect women from the purveyors of baby clothes and adoption advice.

The meandering legal case has put the council's will on hold, but Ms. Sangree of the City Solicitor's Office is busy trying the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, the plaintiff in the legal case, in the court of public opinion. According to The Sun, she said the city would be investigating the center to show that its real goal is to make money and that it is not honest in how it describes its services.

After three years of litigation, she should have done her homework. But I'll do the research for her. On the front page of the center's website, it says that it does "not perform or refer abortions" and says its mission is "to protect the physical, emotional and spiritual lives of women and their unborn children." According to the Center for Pregnancy Concerns 2012 Form 990, obtained through Guidestar.org, it raised $395,111 and spent $276,311 on program services in that year. It receives no money from the government. According to Thomas Schetelich, chairman of the board of the organization, it provides services free of charge.

It's rolling in so much money, the Archdiocese of Baltimore recently sent out a request in church bulletins on its behalf: "Please consider picking up an extra pack of diapers, wipes, and baby toiletries on your next trip to Target, Walmart or the grocery store."

I'm glad the city knows a suspect operation when it sees one.

Marta H. Mossburg is a Baltimore-area writer whose work appears regularly in The Sun. Her email is marta@martamossburg.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.

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