Crisis Pregnancy Centers Would Face New Restrictions Under Proposed Hartford Ordinance

In the window of the Hartford Women’s Center on the corner of Jefferson and Main streets, there is a sign that asks in purple lettering, “Pregnant?”

“You have options,” it reassures. “We care. We can help.”

The options may be confusing, however, and have led to a proposed new city ordinance that would require crisis pregnancy centers, which are known as CPCs, to disclose the medical credentials of their staff. The ordinance, which is on the council’s agenda for Monday night, also would prohibit false or misleading advertising.

Some have mistaken the women’s center for its neighbor, Hartford GYN, a longstanding abortion provider and family planning clinic that shares the same street corner as the office with the purple-lettered sign.

Allegations raised by Hartford GYN staff — which prompted Hartford’s mayor last month to propose an ordinance cracking down on crisis pregnancy centers — portray the center as willfully deceptive, masquerading as a reproductive health clinic while dispensing mostly faith-based, non-medical advice.

Hartford GYN and the Hartford Women’s Center stand just 20 feet apart, but the ideological underpinnings of the two centers could not be more distant. The Hartford Women’s Center is a faith-based operation that opened in May to intercept women on their way to Hartford GYN and convince them to forgo abortion.

In an emailed statement, the Hartford Women’s Center’s director, Leticia Velasquez, said: “Our mission at Hartford Women’s Center is to ‘intercept’ young women who feel they have no other choice than abortion.”

Similar Name, Different Agenda

With its name, its location and even the color of the window sign’s lettering — purple, the color often worn by pro-choice advocates — the clinic’s staff alleges that the Women’s Center has tried to confuse women into mistaking the CPC’s offices for Hartford GYN’s. And they say Women’s Center volunteers have misrepresented themselves, too, either by implying they were Hartford GYN staff or by steering the abortion clinic’s patients into their own offices for “appointments.”

“Women are being intentionally deceived,” said Jamie Beers, Hartford GYN’s administrator and an employee of 19 years. “We’re very concerned.”

Velasquez declined to meet for an interview to discuss her organization and the allegations made by Hartford GYN.

Judith Mascolo, a West Hartford physician who volunteers at the Women’s Center, said any characterizations of the Women’s Center as deceptive or misleading are “completely untrue.”

“We do not deceive anyone,” Mascolo said. “We do not harass any woman approaching the abortion center.”

Mascolo did say the center’s volunteers are trained to approach women along the shared walkway between the two centers, though she maintained that no volunteer has ever coerced or misled the women into entering the CPC.

“If the woman says she is not interested, she is left alone,” Mascolo said. “If she wants to talk, then she is invited into our center.”

The Hartford Women’s Center operates under the auspices of St. Gerard’s Center for Life, which has another location two miles away on Eaton Street. But when the Jefferson Street site opened in May, it was named the Hartford Women’s Center — strikingly similar to The Women’s Centers, a reproductive health network in the Northeast and the parent organization of Hartford GYN.

If that’s confusing, representatives from the abortion providers say it’s deliberate.

“They chose that name intentionally to try and mimic ours,” said Roxanne Sutocky, director of community outreach for Women’s Centers clinics in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “Changing their name to ‘The Women’s Center’ gives them a different connotation. It’s deceptive. They’re trying to distance themselves from their religious background.”

The Women’s Center advertises “limited obstetrical ultrasounds,” which Mascolo said checks for three things: the fetus’s placement in the uterus, its age and its heartbeat. The ultrasounds are not as comprehensive as those administered by an obstetrics office, she said, which scan for anomalies, gauge ovary health and check the placenta.

Velasquez has said previously that the Hartford Women’s Center has three licensed medical professionals on staff: Mascolo, who is a family physician, and two registered nurses. Mascolo said the center’s medical staff are only on-site on Tuesdays, the day the center offers ultrasounds.

"There's no reason to have a licensed medical professional there on other days because we aren't doing medical procedures,’’ she said. “We are not a medical provider, so there's no reason for us to be there every day."

Hartford GYN staff said their patients have been approached on the shared walkway and offered $50 and a free ultrasound by Women’s Center volunteers. In a series of public Facebook posts, Velasquez offered $50 Visa cards to pregnant women to participate in their ultrasound training program. Mascolo said it was true — they’d been training their medical staff and were compensating women to take ultrasounds — but defended the practice, calling it standard procedure. In another public Facebook post, Velasquez wrote beneath a picture of a dresser she planned to convert to a coffee bar: “Think of how it will be used to lure abortion minded women off the path to the abortion clinic to come and have a coffee and talk it over and hopefully bring their precious babies to term!”

Nationwide Conflict

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will address a similar controversy surrounding a California law that requires CPCs to disclose their medical credentials and tell women that they have access to free or low-cost contraceptives. The case, NIFL vs. Becerra, will revisit a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2016 that upheld the state’s right to regulate professional speech.

Peter Wolfgang, director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, said he will be following the Supreme Court case closely. The Hartford ordinance, Wolfgang said, is in the same vein as the California law — “an ideologically driven overreach from the abortion industry to shut down the competition and keep pregnancy centers from helping these women with their health and helping them choose life.”

“What this really is about,” he continued, “is CPCs now outnumbering abortion centers even in Connecticut. They want to take out the competition.”

Nationally, both supporters and detractors of CPCs claim they outnumber abortion providers by a wide margin. It’s a difficult claim to verify; there is no true tally of CPCs, which are not required to register with state or federal agencies. Politifact estimated that there could be anywhere between 1,800 and 8,000 CPCs in the country. The Guttmacher Institute, a research group affiliated with Planned Parenthood, last counted 1,700 abortion clinics in 2011.

In Connecticut, there are 27 CPCs and 19 licensed abortion providers. But nowhere do they exist as uncomfortably close as at the corner of Jefferson and Main.

Pink-vested volunteers steer Hartford GYN patients past a pro-life picket line, now a fixture outside the clinic. Protesters alternately heckle the women and whisper them a rosary. The picketers are nothing new. But for Hartford GYN staff, the CPCs alleged efforts to mimic their own offices are an unsettling development.

“Not a lot of people know the truth about these centers, even though there’s thousands and thousands of them in the country. When you’re walking up to it, you think, ‘Wow — what a great thing,’” Sutocky said. “A women’s center.”

Copyright © 2018, CT Now