Lack of evidence cited in bill aimed at pregnancy crisis center advertising
September 28th, 2011
By Valerie Schmalz
Two San Francisco supervisors said NARAL Pro-Choice California failed to prove that First Resort engages in false advertising, even as they joined in voting to forward legislation targeting pregnancy centers to the full Board of Supervisors for a vote.
The “False Advertising by Limited Services Pregnancy Centers” legislation, introduced by Supervisor Malia Cohen and written by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, is aimed at First Resort’s use of billboards in poor Latino and African-American neighborhoods and pay-per-click Google ads that bring up First Resort’s website in response to the search engine query “abortion.”
The proposed ordinance would affect speech of any kind by the organization or its employees, First Resort said in a statement submitted to the committee. First Resort is an Oakland-based nonprofit pregnancy counseling and women’s health clinic that provides free medical services. The ordinance was originally on the agenda of Oct. 4 but was continued to Oct. 18.
“The legislative record here is empty,” Supervisor Sean Elsbernd said, saying he would vote against the ordinance after confirming with the deputy city attorney that state law regulating medical clinics prohibits false advertising and thus already covers First Resort’s operations. “I do not want to see us pursue this.”
“I would love to be able to support the legislation that would protect a woman’s right to choose,” said Supervisor John Avalos, chairman of the City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee, at the Sept. 26 hearing. “I think if you can produce a record of false advertising here in San Francisco, I can support it.”
Elsbernd said that legislation targeting pregnancy centers in New York, Baltimore and Texas has not stood up to court challenge. This is the first time medical clinics were included, and Elsbernd said no testimony against non-licensed Alpha Pregnancy Center was presented.
“It puts at risk our ability to proceed in a court if there is an appeal,” Avalos said.
First Resort said the proposed legislation would have a “chilling” effect on free speech, imposes Draconian fines for vague violations of speech and is directed solely at pregnancy centers, specifically First Resort, as it exempts from any penalties all organizations that provide or provide referrals for abortion.
“The proposed ordinance is the result of a private political organization using the power of government to attack another organization based on that organization’s ideas and speech. National Abortion Rights Action League (“NARAL”) has long attacked First Resort in NARAL’s publications and ‘investigations,’” First Resort said in its statement. “It is an abuse of governmental power and the legislative process to draft legislation to target one organization for the benefit of a political ally.”
The third supervisor on the committee, Eric Mar, said he supported the legislation and asked Cohen to add him as a co-sponsor. “If you are providing accurate information, what do you have to be afraid of?” Mar asked. The other co-sponsors are Supervisors Scott Wiener, Jane Kim and David Chiu.
In testimony by its officers and employees, First Resort said it always presents clients with a form that states it does not refer or do abortions, that if asked about abortion on the telephone it states it does not do abortions or refer for them, and that it provides same-day appointments to clients. About two-thirds of the attendees wore First Resort “Protect Women’s Choices” stickers but testimony was split evenly between supporters and opponents of the legislation.
“I was very surprised” by the committee’s decision not to recommend passage, said First Resort CEO Shari Plunkett.
“We’d heard that the supervisors, as they said, were strongly pro-choice so we were concerned that there would be a flat-out yes vote but instead they sent it forward without a recommendation and called on the supporters to give more evidence,” said First Resort board member and attorney Paul Sluis.
Bill sponsor Cohen said she is confident the bill will pass the full board of supervisors. “This is not a piece of legislation that is ill-spirited,” Cohen said.
From Sept. 30, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.