Two Hampshire County communities — Easthampton and Northampton — are working to address misinformation from so-called pregnancy crisis centers, organizations often falsely claiming to provide abortion or other women’s health care while working to talk people out of having abortions, according to abortion rights advocates and other officials.
Both communities are considering local ordinances against deceptive advertising practices in crisis pregnancy centers in hopes of creating a safe place for reproductive rights following Roe v. Wade being overturned, with Easthampton further along in the process than Northampton.
“[Crisis pregnancy centers] Strictly serve a purpose to mislead people seeking a variety of reproductive care, not just abortions, accurate information on pregnancy as well as a variety of contraception,” said Easthampton City Councilor Owen Zaret, who introduced a city ordinance to ban deceptive advertising practices from crisis pregnancy centers. “This is not about free speech. Unfortunately some of the information that is disseminated by these centers I don’t think is accurate but, because of the First Amendment, those centers [are able to] share that information to people there.”
Before Politico leaked an early draft of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion to overturn Roe, Zaret began working with Planned Parenthood and other cities in the state to draft the ordinance.
In early May, the ordinance was voted on and approved by the City Council’s Ordinance Committee with an unanimous vote to proceed to a public hearing, according to Zaret.
According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine in 2020, crisis pregnancy centers outnumbered abortion care providers three to one nation-wide when the survey was completed in 2018.
There are several crisis pregnancy centers in western Massachusetts, including two in Springfield — Clearway Clinic and Springfield Pregnancy Center — according to Massachusetts-based abortion rights advocacy organization Reproductive Equity Now. The organization has a list of nearly 30 crisis pregnancy centers it has identified in the state.
Bethlehem House in Easthampton is also a crisis pregnancy center, according to Reproductive Equity Now.
However, Zaret said that the Easthampton city ordinance shouldn’t affect them.
“I think [Bethlehem House] felt they were being targeted by this [ordinance]. I didn’t even know this place existed when we introduced the ordinance,” said Zaret. “After reviewing what they do and their advertising, they’re pretty clear they are a pro-life religious organization…. I don’t really see how this [ordinance] would effect them at all.”
A person who answered the phone at Bethlehem House declined to comment about the ordinance.
Zaret said that he based Easthampton’s proposed city ordinance on similar legislation passed by other states and cities, including New York, Connecticut, San Francisco and the city of Somerville in Massachusetts.
The next public hearing to discuss Easthampton’s proposed ordinance is on July 6 at 6 pm at 50 Payson Avenue 2nd floor or via zoom or dial 650-667-3204 with the PIN: 159 226 350#.
“[The hearing is an] opportunity to receive more public input and testimony as well as more input from the City Council,” said Zaret. “And to ensure transparency in government.”
Zaret said that he and other public officials are still trying to figure out how the ordinance will be enforced and are still in discussion with the Easthampton Health Department and Easthampton’s attorney.
“[This is] really a consumer protection ordinance. This has nothing to do with pro-choice, anti-choice issues. It’s not about abortion. It’s not about contraception,” said Zaret. “It’s for people who are seeking information and real health care around this issue to be able to access it without being deceived into going somewhere that doesn’t offer these services.”
Northampton City Councilor Rachel Maiore said that she is considering proposing similar legislation for Northampton.
The Supreme Court decision “lit a fire under [Northampton] to look locally and fortify reproductive rights,” said Maoire.
Maoire said there aren’t currently any crisis centers pregnancy in Northampton, and no Northampton organizations are on Reproductive Equity Now’s list. However, Maoire said she wants to be prepared for whatever possibility there is for the anti-abortion movement to disseminate false or deceptive information to people seeking medical and reproductive care.
Maoire said that Northampton’s City Council is still in the midst of seeking legal advice and tailoring a city ordinance that works best for the community.
Although Maoire said that crisis pregnancy centers have a right to exist, she said that they shouldn’t be disseminating false information.
“Most people can get behind accurate information and medical care,” said Maoire.
Amherst town councilor Devlin Gauthier proposed legislation against crisis pregnancy centers in April of this year. However, she withdrew the proposed bylaw in June when an early draft of Justice Alito’s majority opinion was leaked to Politico in May.
“I would like to be very clear about my reason for withdrawing this measure,” Devlin Gauthier wrote in a memo to the Amherst town council. “It has nothing to do with the importance or legitimacy of this bylaw, and everything to do with the need for an approach which meets the urgent moment we are now in.”
Gauthier said in the memo that she plans on bringing it forward at a later date but that it didn’t require immediate action as Amherst doesn’t have a crisis pregnancy center.
The discussion of crisis centers has also occurred at a state level.
On Wednesday, US Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Senator Edward J. Markey and reproductive content including Rebecca Hart Holder, the executive director of Reproductive Equity Now, met in Boston to discuss the Roe ruling and next steps.
“We have in all places in our country a notion of truth in advertising — that deceiving people in order to provide services is wrong and, in most contexts, outlawed,” Warren said. “The idea that centers have grown up to prey on people who are pregnant and vulnerable and seeking help is fundamentally wrong. We should stop it nationwide.”
While Zaret said the Easthampton city ordinance is likely to be finalized in the coming months, he said he wants more crisis work to be done to address the deceptive practices of pregnancy centers across the country.
“Especially with the Supreme Court decision, I hope we implement more safeguards for access to reproductive health care,” said Zaret. “For now [Massachusetts] has to lead the way, especially where access to reproductive health care is at risk, even in places like Massachusetts and other places where [abortion] is still legal.”