City ordinance requires pregnancy crisis centers to detail services

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Dr. Geoffrey Erwin of Austin LifeCare gives an ultrasound to a patient Wednesday afternoon. Austin City Council members passed an ordinance last Thursday that requires Austin Life Care and other pregnancy counseling centers to obtain a facility license and post signs that say if medical services are provided by licensed health care providers.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Pregnancy counseling centers offering numerous health and wellness services will be required by a city ordinance passed last Thursday to obtain a facility license that does not exist, said one center’s spokeswoman.

In April, Austin City Council members passed an ordinance requiring Austin LifeCare, Austin Pregnancy Resource Center, Gabriel Project Life Center and the South Austin Pregnancy Resource Center to post signs advertising the fact that they do not offer abortion or contraceptive services and do not refer clients to facilities where they could receive information about these services. On Thursday, City Council members reworded the ordinance requiring pregnancy service centers to post signs indicating “whether all medical services are provided under direction and supervision of a licensed health care provider” and “whether the center is licensed by a state or federal regulatory entity to provide those services.”

Pam Cobern, spokeswoman for Austin LifeCare, said all employees providing medical care at Austin LifeCare have the appropriate certifications, but there is no license available for the center itself.

“[We] do not even know how one would go about getting a license for the facility,” Cobern said. “That just does not exist.”

Cobern said she thinks this decision was made in response to several lawsuits that have been filed by the affected pregnancy centers after the initial ordinance. She said, to her knowledge, all four centers are planning to proceed with their lawsuit against the city.

“The city’s attorney recently recommended that the council change or repeal the ordinance because of the expense of defending it in court,” she said.

Cobern said members of Austin’s Law Department must know that at least three other cities — including New York City and Baltimore — have passed similar ordinances that were eventually ruled unconstitutional in federal courts.

Pre-journalism sophomore Rachel Bush said she has worked previously with the Austin Pregnancy Resource Center, a pregnancy center close to campus, which has been affected by this these ordinances. Bush said she thought both ordinances were unreasonable.

“While the language of the new ordinance is not as controversial as the original, I don’t think the pregnancy centers should have to post a sign at all,” Bush said. “It is clear upon walking into a [crisis pregnancy center] that they do not perform or refer for abortions.

They don’t attempt to cover that up. The whole issue, in my opinion, has to do with [a] desire to stifle the work that the pregnancy centers are doing.”

Both Bush and Cobern said they thought the four crisis pregnancy centers affected were being targeted in a way that abortion centers or Planned Parenthood offices would not be treated.

Plan II senior Jenny Kutner said she approves of the original ordinance passed last year and thinks centers should post signs describing the exact services they provide.

“I don’t think it’s unconstitutional in any way for the centers to be required to be open and honest about their services instead of potentially duping women experiencing a very sensitive time in their lives,” Kutner said.

In light of this, she also said she does not agree with the decision to repeal it.

“I do believe very much that crisis pregnancy centers should exist for women that desire neither abortion nor contraception,” Kutner said. “They can, however, be misleading for pregnant women who do seek abortion or other information not provided at these centers.”

Printed on Thursday, February 2, 2012 as: Pregnancy centers split on city ordinance