A controversial bill supported by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to regulate anti-abortion pregnancy centers passed the City Council on Wednesday. Critics of the bill claim it is unconstitutional.
The vote was 39-to-9, with one abstention.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the Council heard hours of testimony from women who had gone to what they thought were full-service reproductive health clinics only to find out they were actually anti-abortion front groups hoping to have women take their pregnancy to full term. Quinn estimated there are about a dozen such sites around the city.
"Curiously or deliberately, many of these 12 are across the street or very, very close to Planned Parenthood or other full service reproductive health centers," Quinn said.
The bill's prime sponsor, Manhattan Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, said in some instances the Council had documented that women had been told they had been seen by a medical professional when they had not been.
"We heard hours of testimony from people who were personally harmed by being deceived by these places," Lappin said. "A woman testified that she had been told she had been seen and fully examined and sent on her way when she had never seen a medical provider."
Under the bill's provisions a reproductive center would have to:
- Disclose if it had a licensed medical provider on staff
- Provide or refer for prenatal care
- Provide or refer for abortion
- Provide or refer for emergency contraception.
Notice of the above is to be provided in both Spanish and English at the entrance to the pregnancy center. The bill carries both fines and potential jail time for violators.
The Council debate was unusually impassioned for a group where lopsided votes are the norm.
"The real matter before us fundamentally is free speech regardless of whether or not you are pro-life or pro-choice," said Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who voted 'No.' "It is unprecedented in the history of the City Council to impose upon non-profit organizations to post a sign that requires them to state what they do not do."
Cabrera and several other speakers referenced the fact that 40 percent of the city's pregnancy end in abortion.
Staten Island Councilwoman Deborah Rose spoke for the bill: "I know there is a lot of emotionalism regarding this issue, and it has opened up a lot of old wounds from Roe vs. Wade. But this is not Roe vs. Wade," said Rose. "This is legislation about full disclosure, consumer protection and truth in advertising."
Both sides in the debate cited a similar measure on the books in Baltimore, which required anti-abortion pregnancy centers to post disclosure signs and was struck down by a federal judge last month.
"It still regulates when and how pro-life groups will address the issue of abortion and contraception," said Republican minority leader Councilman James Oddo. "The government is still telling these groups they have to discuss it and that in my opinion violates the first amendment."
The bill's boosters, working in consultation with the Bloomberg Administration's lawyers, said they had adopted language significantly different from the Baltimore law that was struck down as unconstitutional.
Voting 'No' to oppose the measure were: Fernando Cabrera, Vincent Gentile, Daniel Halloran, Vincent Ignizio, Pater Koo, Darlene Mealy and Eric Ulrich. Abstaining was Mathieu Eugene.