Hartford Ordinance Proposal Would Halt Alleged Deceptive Practices At Anti-Abortion Centers

The city is looking to crack down on faith-driven crisis pregnancy centers, which critics say sometimes pose as clinics to lure women and hand out misleading information about abortions.

Under a measure headed for the city council, the so-called anti-abortion centers in Hartford would be required to disclose whether staff members have medical licenses, and would be banned from engaging in false or deceptive advertising practices.

Fines of $100 a day could be levied against centers that violate the ordinance. If adopted, the city’s health and human services department would begin enforcement within 30 days.

In Hartford, proponents of the measure are taking aim at a Jefferson Street facility known as the Hartford Women’s Center, located just steps from Hartford GYN Center, an independent abortion clinic. Detractors say the women’s center was set up there to intercept Hartford GYN patients.

Leticia Velasquez, director of the women’s center, declined to comment Thursday on her company’s practices and on the city proposal.

Sarah Croucher, head of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, a pro-abortion rights group based in the capital city, said people with the anti-abortion centers approach women looking for legitimate clinics and beckon them inside.

Employees sometimes pose in white coats to make visitors believe they’ve arrived at a medical facility, she said, and then provide them with false information.

“The deliberate misinformation and lies to try to stop people from having abortions, that is an issue,” Croucher said. “Especially when people actually think they’re going to a clinic and they’re being given that information, that’s a real public health problem, because they’re being delayed in accessing care that is time sensitive.”

In a letter to the city council, Mayor Luke Bronin said he suggested the crackdown after hearing complaints.

“This ordinance is being proposed in response to concerns that have been raised over the past several months that women have been purposely misled into believing they are seeing a licensed medical provider when they are not,” he wrote.

Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, a group that opposes abortion, said the city ordinance may not pass constitutional muster.

Although he hadn’t seen the language proposed in Hartford, he cited a federal court’s 2016 ruling on a Baltimore ordinance requiring a Christian pregnancy center to post a disclaimer that it won't refer women for abortions.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis ruled that enforcing the ordinance could violate the center’s right to free speech, but did not deem the law itself unconstitutional.

“Pregnancy care centers have a First Amendment right to serve expectant mothers without being forced to engage in coerced speech or other government mandates whose real purpose is to prevent them from helping women,’’ Wolfgang said. “The push for these ordinances … is being driven by pro-abortion activists who are angry that pro-life centers now outnumber abortion clinics in Connecticut.”

Wolfgang said approving such a measure could leave Hartford open to a protracted legal battle.

“I urge city officials not to embark on a path that may lead to costly litigation,’’ he said. “Isn’t choice what the abortion issue was supposedly about? If pro-choicers really are what they claim to be, they would leave these centers alone.”

While backers of the proposal have pointed to only one anti-abortion center in Hartford, they said there are more than 30 across Connecticut.

The issue has drawn rebukes and political backlash in other areas.

In 2015, the California General Assembly passed legislation requiring anti-abortion centers to provide comprehensive information about reproductive health care options, including abortion. As part of that law, the centers also must disclose whether they lack a medical license.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in June upheld a San Francisco law prohibiting crisis pregnancy centers from misleading women into believing they provide abortions.

Hartford’s ordinance will be considered by the city council on Monday. A vote could take place later this month.

A public hearing on the measure has been scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 20 at city hall.

Courant staff writer Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.

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