Abortion sign ordinance doomed in courts

Samian Quazi

Four faith-based pregnancy centers filed a federal lawsuit against Austin on Oct. 6, charging that a city ordinance violates their free speech rights. The ordinance, passed unanimously by the City Council last year, requires such centers to post signs indicating they do not offer abortions or birth control. Despite its intentions, the ordinance is bound to be overturned in federal courts. The council should repeal the ordinance, replacing it with a constitutionally-viable one.

Proposed by Councilman Bill Spelman in April 2010, the ordinance was intended to clear confusion to crisis pregnancy centers’ visitors who may be unsure of the services these centers offer, according to the Austin American-Statesman . The ordinance would also protect pregnant women who may be considering abortion, as many CPCs advertise themselves as abortion facilities but seek to dissuade women from undergoing this procedure. Violators can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by fines up to $450.

The four Austin CPCs in the lawsuit have asked for temporary and permanent injunctions against the city from enforcing the ordinance. One of the centers, Austin LifeCare, has already complied with the ordinance, but the other three have declined to post signs. The centers allege they are being penalized for their religious beliefs on abortion and are victims of unlawful viewpoint discrimination, according to the Statesman.

These centers certainly have a controversial history in the nationwide abortion debate, and patrons of these centers should have no ambiguities of their anti-abortion goals. However, it would be constitutionally untenable to require an institution to advertise they do not provide a specific service. After all, chiropractors don’t have to post signs outside their offices stating they do not provide orthopedic surgery. Nor is Jack-in-the-Box legally obligated to post a sign outside their windows indicating they don’t sell pizza. Such an ordinance sets a bad precedent in terms of business regulations.

The CPCs also point out centers that either provide abortion or birth control services or refer their clients to said providers are unaffected by this ordinance. Faith-based groups supporting the CPCs point out that Planned Parenthood, for instance, is not required to post signage at applicable clinics indicating they do provide abortion or birth control.

Indeed, when our neighboring state of Louisiana passed a law on July 6 requiring abortion providers to post their own signs, pro-choice groups vowed to sue. The Louisiana law requires clinics providing abortions to post signs stating a woman cannot be legally forced to obtain an abortion and that her partner must pay child support, according to Ms. Magazine. Just as Louisiana’s law infringes on the free speech rights of that state’s abortion providers, Austin’s ordinance infringes on the business practices our city’s CPCs seek to provide.

Federal courts have struck down nearly-identical municipality regulations on CPCs in New York City, Baltimore and Montgomery County in Maryland. In the Baltimore case, U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis issued an opinion finding signage laws “a form of compelled speech” that unlawfully interjects itself on a client-to-center relationship that may or may not focus on abortion or birth control.

By defending its ordinance in federal court, the Austin City Council will undoubtedly need answers as to why it can regulate CPC’s speech whereas Baltimore’s law failed to do the same. But given the string of defeats in federal courts against sign ordinances, Austin is doomed to lose.

Crisis pregnancy centers nationwide have an unscrupulous and deceptive history of misleading vulnerable women out of their legal and legitimate reproductive rights. Many screen gruesome (and exaggerated) films about abortion to prospective clients and ratchet up psychological pressure on women by demanding they sign promissory notes not to get an abortion.

Time Magazine notes, “There are now more than five times as many CPCs in the U.S. as there are abortion clinics. And many are in close proximity: One Kansas City, Mo. abortion clinic even shares a wall with a CPC. Both types of clinics are vaguely named, and women setting out to go to an abortion provider sometimes mistakenly walk into a CPC.”

Since the CPCs themselves focus on counseling and financial support instead of direct medical or surgical services, the council has an opportunity to safeguard women’s choices in a novel way. It should consider a more generalized ordinance requiring all counseling providers to post signs indicating they do not engage in regulated medical procedures. By establishing a delineation that doesn’t specifically target CPCs or bring in the word “abortion,” the council can achieve its objectives protected by federal courts.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.