Both sides of the abortion debate will be focusing on Baltimore today, when the City Council is expected to approve a first-in-the-nation law imposing new regulations on faith-based organizations that try to steer women away from the procedure.
The measure, introduced by council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake at the behest of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, would require that crisis pregnancy centers that do not provide abortions or birth control post signs saying so.
Proponents frame the effort as a matter of public health. They accuse the centers of giving false or misleading information about the effects of abortion and birth control. Pregnant women, they say, should be told when they are not being given access to all of the options legally available to them.
But officials at such centers say they make their mission clear. They say the information they give is accurate, and making them advertise the services that they don't provide would be an unprecedented form of harassment.
"It really impugns our integrity," said Carol A. Clews, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, which has two locations in the city and a third in Dundalk. "We are very forthright about what we do here and what we don't do. To put us in a position where we would have to put up a sign is offensive."
Jennifer Blasdell says it shouldn't be.
"It's not asking these centers to provide any sort of service that they find objectionable," said Blasdell, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland. "It's just asking them to disclose what is true."
The City Council, having voted 12-3 last week to move the measure forward, is expected to approve it today. It would then go to Mayor Sheila Dixon, who supports abortion rights but has not said whether she would sign it.
If Dixon, now awaiting a jury verdict on theft charges, is forced to step down, Rawlings-Blake would become mayor.
The action has drawn attention across the abortion divide, with both sides saying Baltimore could be a test case for the nation. Since Rawlings-Blake introduced the bill last month, a similar proposal has sprung up in Montgomery County.
"This is clearly a first step, and they're using Baltimore as a steppingstone, trying to manipulate our legislature into doing something that no other assembly has done in the United States," said Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, spiritual leader of the area's 500,000 Catholics. "It's unheard of, and, I think, irresponsible."
Keiren Havens, vice president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, says the local effort could serve as a national model.
"We've been very concerned about crisis pregnancy centers for quite a while," she said. "There's a growing national network of crisis pregnancy centers that are specifically designed to target what they call abortion-vulnerable women and deny them full medical information about abortion and contraception, including referrals for those services. And that's of great concern to us just as a public health issue."
Rawlings-Blake is aware of the national implications of the proposal. But she says they aren't her concern.
"I represent Baltimore City and my constituents here," she said. "When confronted with what I saw was a potential problem, I looked for solutions."
The legislation follows separate reports by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland and Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California that accuse crisis pregnancy centers in the state and nationwide of attempting to deceive clients with false or misleading information.
At the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland says, volunteer investigators posing as pregnant women were given inaccurate information about the safety and effectiveness of birth control, about links between abortion and cancer, and about the emotional trauma that women may experience undergoing the procedure.
Blasdell says the sign outside the organization's Charles Village center, which advertises "Accurate information on all options" and "Medical and community referrals," is itself misleading.
"It is easy for a woman to confuse that center with a comprehensive center that is going to give accurate information about her options," she said.
Cathy Johnson, a coordinator for the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, says she stands by the information she gives her clients.
The center, which sees about 1,000 women a year, counsels against abortion, and offers sonograms as a way of dissuading those who are considering the procedure. But Johnson says most of her work consists of supporting women who plan to carry their pregnancies to term, with parenting classes, maternity and infant supplies and referrals for prenatal care and adoption.
"We're not converting women who want to go to Planned Parenthood," Johnson said. "They come to us because they know what we do."
The council bill would require that a "limited-service pregnancy center" post a conspicuous and easily readable sign, written in English and Spanish, "substantially to the effect that the center does not provide or make referral for abortion or birth-control services." A center failing to comply within 10 days of being cited could be fined up to $150 per day.
In a letter to Rawlings-Blake, O'Brien called the measure "harassment." If it passes, he said in an interview, the archdiocese is prepared "legally to address it."
"When Planned Parenthood puts out in their literature on their doorstep that they do not provide baby formula and care for pregnant women to find homes for the babies, when they're asked to do that, we can come to some kind of compromise on what this city is expecting of us," he said.
Havens says Planned Parenthood follows the same standard of care as any gynecological provider. While this doesn't include providing "clothes or infant formula or baby rattles," she said, it does include referrals for prenatal care and adoption.
"We don't see ourselves on opposite sides of the issue here," she said. "All we're saying is if you are an organization that targets pregnant women, you should, if you're not going to provide them with information, you need to refer them for information that they need to make their life decision."