By Willow Belden
The Expectant Mother Care center in downtown Brooklyn is located on a busy street near Borough Hall. It’s looks kind of like a doctor’s office. There are clipboards with medical questionnaires, two rooms with examining tables and a woman in a white lab coat. The waiting area feels more homey. Four young women lounge on leather couches. A video about the development of a fetus is playing. It explains that by the fifth week, the embryo develops hand plates and cartilage.
Down the hall, a 23-year-old woman is getting an ultrasound. She’s nine weeks pregnant, knows she wants to keep her baby, and came for an early ultrasound so she could show her mother a picture of the fetus. Linda Marzulla, the director of the pregnancy center, pokes her head into the sonogram room.
“Here, let me show you,” she says. “This is an ultrasound.”
She swivels the screen toward the expectant mother and the reporter. “We’re going to get his heartbeat now,” she continues, turning up the speakers until a muffled thumping noise is audible.
“This is a human being right here, OK?” Marzulla says. “It has a heart beat. It’s a baby.”
This facility is a “crisis pregnancy center,” or CPC. There are about 15 of them across the city. They offer free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and counseling. But they’re not medical clinics. They aim to steer women away from abortions.
Marzulla says her center’s agenda is no secret. She walks back into the waiting room and points to a poster above the TV.
“The sign’s up already,” she says. “‘Free Abortion Alternatives.’ Here, look. ‘Pregnant women need support, not abortion.’ ‘Don’t panic, there’s a help line.’ These have been up for years.”
But some people say centers like this one are deceptive. So City Council decided to regulate them. Last week, the Council passed a bill requiring pregnancy centers to post signs saying they’re not licensed medical facilities and that they don’t offer abortions or emergency contraception. They’ll have to mention that on the phone as well, when women call to make appointments.
“It’s designed to be a truth in advertising bill,” said John Moore, a spokesman for Councilmember Jessica Lappin, who wrote the bill. “We’re targeting places that are not doctors offices but are trying to give the impression that they are.”
Some crisis pregnancy centers have a doctor on hand once or twice a week, for prenatal checkups. But the staffers administering pregnancy tests and sonograms aren’t licensed medical professionals. And the pamphlets they hand out include disputed facts about abortion. Moore says women need to know that.
“There’s a real harm in them thinking that they’re going to the doctor when they’re pregnant and not being at the doctor and not getting that medical care,” he said.
But administrators at the crisis pregnancy centers say their clients are getting the services they want.
“Not a single woman in 26 years has filed a complaint against us,” said Chris Slattery, the president of a chain of privately funded CPCs across the city, including the one near Borough Hall. Slattery dismisses his opponents’ criticism.
“They can detest what we say to women in a pregnancy center,” he said. “But our advertising of our centers has been legal and truthful.”
Slattery plans to sue the city over the new legislation. He says it’s a violation of first-amendment rights.
“It only applies to pro-life centers,” Slattery said. “So therefore, it’s regulation based on the content of our viewpoint and the content of our speech.”
Earlier this year, a federal court in Maryland ruled that a similar law was unconstitutional.
But Katharine, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, says this law is different. She says the Maryland law specifically targeted centers that don’t offer abortions, whereas the New York City bill applies to “entities that appear to be medical facilities — not based on the services they do or do not provide.”
Bodde says she expects the New York bill to withstand a legal challenge, because it applies to any center that looks like a doctor’s office but isn’t one.
“For instance, let’s say a crisis pregnancy center opened up tomorrow in New York City, and it wasn’t an anti-choice center; it was a pro-choice center,” she said. “That center would be covered under the bill.”
But Chris Slattery and the CPCs aren’t giving up without a fight. Slattery has hired a lawyer and plans to file for a restraining order as soon as Mayor Bloomberg signs the bill on Wednesday.