Punishing pregnancy centers

New legislation would allow crisis pregnancy centers to be fined for deceptive practices

Suzanne Moss doesn't see the need for Illinois to become one of the first states to explicitly allow pregnancy resource centers to be fined for deceptive practices.

"I find it very odd," said Moss, education program coordinator of Two Hearts Springfield, one of three such pro-life pregnancy centers in the city. "I don't know any pregnancy care center that operates like this, with deceptive practices. We are very upfront. ... We are here to help the woman, regardless of her decision. We hope her decision is for life."

Supporters said the legislation, championed by Attorney General Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, would give the AG's office the option to ask courts to fine "limited services pregnancy centers" $50,000 or more if the centers use unfair or deceptive practices with patients, including those who may be interested in abortion or emergency contraception.

Senate Bill 1909 passed the Democratic-controlled Illinois House and Senate on May 10 and March 31, respectively, with no Republican votes. Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker is expected to sign the bill into law.

Those opposing SB 1909 included Republican House members Michael Coffey Jr. of Springfield and C.D. Davidsmeyer of Jacksonville, and Republican Sens. Steve McClure of Springfield and Sally Turner of Beason. Democrats supporting the bill included Rep. Sue Scherer of Decatur and Sen. Doris Turner of Springfield.

As with most legislation dealing with abortion, reproductive rights and reproductive health, debate over the bill was intense, emotional and left little room for shades of gray.

Supporters of the bill said pregnant people and other patients deserve specific protections, especially amid anecdotal reports of pregnancy centers diverting or trying to deceive patients about abortion services.

Opponents, however, say current law allows pregnancy centers to be cited for deceptive practices. The legislation soon heading to Pritzker's desk gives the attorney general too much leeway to potentially harass or try to close the approximately 100 pregnancy resource centers statewide, opponents say.

Some of the nonprofit centers, like Two Hearts, intentionally opened up next door to clinics that provide abortions, and some have operated for decades near abortion providers.

"I witnessed deceptive crisis pregnancy center tactics firsthand on a visit to tour a Planned Parenthood health center in Illinois," Raoul said in a news release. "People who appeared as though they might work there were outside attempting to divert us away from the health center."

Raoul apparently was not referring to Two Hearts, which is immediately south of Planned Parenthood's Springfield health center at 601 Bruns Lane.

Jennifer Welch, president and chief executive officer of nonprofit Planned Parenthood of Illinois, which provides abortions in Springfield and throughout the rest of the state, applauded the two chambers' passage of SB 1909.

"At a time when access to health care is under attack like never before, it's critical that people have access to accurate and unbiased information when making decisions about their health," she said.

Illinois' Democratic supermajority in the General Assembly has taken steps in recent years to remove barriers to abortion while many other Midwestern states have moved in the opposite direction.

The urgency on both sides has accelerated in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's June 24, 2022, decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the court's landmark ruling in 1973 that made abortion a constitutional right nationwide.

Rep. Terra Costa Howard, D-Glen Ellyn, House sponsor of SB 1909, said pregnancy resource centers are "fake clinics" that have been "set up specifically to deceive patients who are seeking reproductive health care."

But Rep. Amy Grant, R-Wheaton, said pregnancy centers "play a vital role in navigating women through the emotional roller coaster that can come with the news of a baby on the way."

In debate on the House floor May 10 before the bill passed, 72-40, Costa Howard brushed aside First Amendment concerns about restricting free speech.

"This is about consumer protection from 'bad actors,'" Costa Howard said. "At the end of the day, don't lie, and you don't have to worry about it."

If enacted, the legislation is expected to be challenged in court.

Rep. Dagmara Avelar, D-Bolingbrook, who voted for the bill, said she walked into "one of these fake clinics" in 2010 and failed to receive information about all of her reproductive health options. "Abortion was out of the question," she said.

Another supporter of the bill, Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, said it's ridiculous for Republicans "from the party of government small enough to fit in my uterus" to defend "lies and deception."

But Rep. William Hauter, R-Morton, said the bill is "targeting one viewpoint in this discussion, and it's viewpoint discrimination."

Rep. Adam Niemerg, R-Dieterich, asked, "Why do we need this bill?" He said a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that there have been no complaints about pregnancy resource centers filed with the attorney general's office over the past 10 years.

Raoul spokesperson Jamey Dunn-Thomason acknowledged the lack of formal consumer complaints on file against pregnancy resource centers. "However," she told Illinois Times, "our office has received communications complaining about the conduct of crisis pregnancy centers from constituents, advocacy organizations and other elected officials, and our office is also aware of news reports about crisis pregnancy centers engaged in fraud and deception."

Lawmakers heard testimony in committee that women at times were misled by pregnancy resource centers and by abortion providers, potentially endangering patients' health.

Moss said she cried tears of joy in summer 2022 when a pregnant woman in her early 20s from Tennessee walked into Two Hearts a few hours before her appointment for an abortion next door at Planned Parenthood.

The woman learned from one of Springfield Right to Life's "sidewalk advocates" in front of Planned Parenthood that Two Hearts offered free, nonmedical sonograms, Moss said.

The woman was considering not following through with the abortion, but her boyfriend, who accompanied her, wanted her to get an abortion until he saw results of the sonogram of the approximately 8-weeks-old fetus. According to Moss, the man said, "I had no idea that was life."

The couple ended up deciding not to get the abortion, and their healthy son was born in February, Moss said.

Cheri Triplett, executive director of Pregnancy Resource Center in Rushville, who is on the board of pro-life Vision 2020 Illinois, said services provided by the nonprofit centers can include free pregnancy tests and both medical and nonmedical ultrasounds, counseling, diapers, clothes, car seats and parenting classes.

The centers provided an estimated $7.8 million in services in Illinois in 2019, she said. Triplett said the pregnancy centers she works with take care not to deceive anyone.

"Pregnancy centers really are good for communities, because healthy families build healthy communities," she said.

Triplett said she hopes Pritzker vetoes SB 1909, though she doubts that will happen.

"The pregnancy centers are the last thing standing in the way of making Illinois the abortion utopia that Gov. Pritzker wants," she said.