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Constitutional Questions Arise as Cambridge Tries to Ban Crisis Pregnancy Centers

The Cambridge City Council meets in City Hall, located in Central Square.
The Cambridge City Council meets in City Hall, located in Central Square. By Julian J. Giordano
By Elias J. Schisgall, Crimson Staff Writer

At a Tuesday meeting, the Cambridge City Council resolved to ban the licensing of limited-services pregnancy centers — establishments that can resemble abortion centers but often counsel against abortion services — though legal and constitutional questions remain.

During the Ordinance Committee's meeting, councilors discussed a proposed amendment to municipal law that would prohibit the city from licensing establishments that “present themselves as providing pregnancy related services but instead seek to persuade people against having an abortion,” according to the amendment’s text.

The amendment also seeks to prevent any limited-services pregnancy center — commonly known as crisis pregnancy centers — from publishing information in print or online that it “knows or reasonably should know” to be “deceptive, whether by statement or omission.”

But an opinion delivered by Cambridge’s City Solicitor Nancy E. Glowa raised doubts about the legality of the amendment. She argued that the restrictions on publishing information could violate the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the 16th Amendment of the Massachusetts Constitution.

“Our opinion is that this could be an unconstitutional regulation of free speech,” Glowa said in the meeting.

She said the amendment as written may not pass a “strict scrutiny” test if reviewed by a court. The strict scrutiny standard would require the city to demonstrate that the amendment “furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.”

Councilor Patricia “Patty” M. Nolan ’80, a co-sponsor of the amendment, said the Council will “take into account” the legal questions and try to pass a version of the amendment that is “narrowly enough construed” to pass constitutional muster.

“The goal, I think, of the Council is to do all we can to ensure that there’s not deceptive information being promulgated in the city,” Nolan said in an interview after the meeting.

Limited-services pregnancy centers have come under heightened scrutiny following the Supreme Court’s decision over the summer to overturn Roe v. Wade. Critics allege the centers target pregnant women and give the misleading impression that they are medical facilities or provide abortions.

“These fake clinics claim to be providing just information and support for all options when in fact they do not,” Nolan said. “They provide wrong information about the options, and they provide a lot of pressure to choose only two of three options: either adoption, or carrying the pregnancy to term.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, ten speakers — including the executive director of a Boston-based limited-services pregnancy center — spoke against the proposal. None spoke in favor.

The proposal follows the example of Somerville, whose city council banned limited-services pregnancy centers in March. In July, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura T. Healy ’92 also issued a consumer advisory warning of the “limited and potentially misleading nature” of the centers, according to a press release.

In Cambridge, as in Somerville, the ban would be preemptive; currently, no limited services pregnancy centers operate in either city, though some exist throughout the Boston area.

The Council voted to hold a second Ordinance Committee meeting at a later date to further discuss the amendment. It also directed the city solicitor to consult with Somerville’s law department on the legal justification behind its ban.


—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at elias.schisgall@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.

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