The New York City Council has now passed Intro 371, the bill that that singles out pregnancy resource centers for harsh and discriminatory regulation. The bill, which will soon be signed into law by the Mayor, is bitterly — and correctly — resented by pro-lifers because it is biased against the centers because of their pro-life beliefs, it is based on a foundation of falsehood, and it violates their right to free speech. The bill will be challenged in court on constitutional grounds, and there is good reason to expect that the courts will strike it down.
This was certainly a significant blow to the pro-life community, and particularly to the pregnancy centers who do so much work to help women in need. They feel justifiably hurt and threatened by the animosity and unfairness of the City government. If this bill is upheld in court, it will make their work much more difficult, and will leave them at risk of discriminatory enforcement by a hostile government.
Having said that, though, we can learn some things if we look back over the history of this bill.
The Original Bill — Where We Started
It’s worth remembering that the first version of the bill, which was introduced in October, was very, very bad:
Who was covered — The definition of what kind of facilities would be covered by the bill was vague and poorly defined. As a result, there was reason to believe that it would reach not just the pregnancy service centers, but also agencies like Catholic Charities, and even convents of the Sisters of Life.
Signage/Disclosure requirements — The bill would have forced these facilities to post signs and re-write all their advertising and promotional literature in order to notify people that they did not refer for abortions or contraception. These requirements were both intrusive and unprecedented — no other organization in the City has to disclose what services they do not perform, and no other organization has to edit its advertising to satisfy government bureaucrats.
Penalties — The penalty provisions were very severe. Violations could be punished by ruinous fines, and the centers could even be closed by the police — penalties that are heavier than those imposed for any other sign requirement under New York City or State law. The center would also not be given any warning of a potential violation, nor would they be given an opportunity to cure the deficiency — first time a center would learn about a problem was when they received a citation for a violation.
Reporting of child abuse — Unbelievably, the bill would prohibit the centers from reporting child abuse or rape — any worker who did report those offenses to the police would be subject to fines or civil lawsuits. This was in many ways the worst single component of the bill.
Clearly, the pro-life community could not let such a bill be passed without making an effort to defeat it, or at least to mitigate the potential harms. However, we had to face an unpleasant political reality — this bill was a major objective for the pro-abortion movement, and there was every reason to believe that the sponsors had enough votes to pass it at any time. It was going to be an uphill battle to defeat, delay, or change Intro 371.
Over the next few months, a sustained lobbying effort was made by the pro-life community and the Church. The media was used to get our message out, grassroots supporters were mobilized to contact their Council members, and direct contacts were made with Council members. The consistent message was that there was no factual basis for the bill, the signage/disclosure requirements were unfair and unduly burdensome, the prohibition on reporting child abuse was irrational, and the penalties were grossly disproportionate.
The Final Bill
At the end of January, a federal district court in Maryland struck down a Baltimore law that was virtually identical to the original version of Intro 371. We hoped that this would either stop, or significantly delay, the bill’s momentum. Unfortunately, the Council was still determined to pass their bill, although they plainly had to modify it to at least give the appearance of complying with the Baltimore decision.
When the final bill was released, there had been some very significant modifications.
Who was covered — The final bill contained a definition of that focused primarily on centers offering medical services — in particular, sonograms and pregnancy tests. Some organizations and facilities that would have been included in the original bill — such as Catholic Charities, the Sisters of Life, and some of the crisis pregnancy centers that just offer counseling — will not be covered. Other facilities, though, particularly those organized under a medical model, will still have to comply.
Signage/Disclosure requirements — There were several changes in the final bill. Centers will be required to post signs, and change their advertisements to notify people if they don’t have a medical professional on staff, and whether they provide or refer for abortion, emergency contraception, and prenatal care. There’s an additional requirement that center workers provide this disclosure any time a client requests those services.
Penalties — Nothing was changed to mitigate the penalties.
Reporting of child abuse — The final draft included language that would permit pregnancy center staff to report child abuse and rape to law enforcement authorities. This is very significant — it eliminated the single worst part of the original bill, which would have imposed draconian penalties on those who were protecting children from exploitation.
The result was that, while there were some improvements, Intro 371 was still a terrible bill. Most significantly, though, nothing had been done to protect the bill from the argument that it violates the First Amendment rights of the centers and their staff. In my opinion, the entire structure of the bill, along with several specific provisions, are fatally flawed, and will provide fertile ground for the pregnancy centers’ attorneys when they file their lawsuit to strike it down. The City’s attorneys are going to have their hands full defending this.
The Way Forward
While the passage of the bill has to be read as a defeat for the pro-life movement, there are some positive things that can be taken away. The emergence of the seeds of an ecumenical coalition of interfaith pro-life leaders is very encouraging, and will have to be nurtured. The importance of the pregnancy centers was highlighted, ironically, by the amount of effort that the pro-abortion movement spent in trying to harm them. They are literally the front lines of the struggle to promote a culture of life, and to help pregnant women choose life. As a community we need to rededicate ourselves to supporting them.
In the end, though, I am left to wonder about the deeper meaning of it all. I believe that God sometimes allows misfortune, failure, and defeat to befall us so that we may learn. One of the key lessons is to trust Him more, and me less. Another is that He wishes us to constantly evaluate our hearts and our actions to make sure that they conform to His will, that they reflect a loving attitude to friend and foe alike, and that they give witness to His love for all his children.
I need to be constantly reminded that it’s not my will, but His will, that has to be done.
I was present at the final Council vote, and afterwards I was pretty downhearted. After I emailed the result back to the Office, Sr. Lucy replied with a comment by St. Augustine, which had been in that day’s Office of Readings. I can’t think of a better way to summarize the key lesson that I need to take away from this experience:
“Your best servant is he who is intent not so much on hearing his petition answered, as rather on willing whatever he hears from You.”