Opponents of a hot-button proposal to regulate the state’s so-called crisis pregnancy centers hailed the bill’s defeat this week and vowed to double down on grassroots efforts to block similar plans next year.
“It was an act of God, because there’s no other explanation for it,” said Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, which has lobbied against the legislation. “It’s a victory on every level. There is no earthly reason why the Family Institute of Connecticut and our allies should have done as well as we did this year. It was a miracle.”
Wolfgang cited the Democratic majority in both chambers and an onslaught of media coverage that was “tilted in favor of attacking” the pregnancy centers as major hurdles the pro-lifers were able to clear.
The measure, which passed through a key committee in March and was approved by the House of Representatives last month, bans deceptive advertising practices by the faith-based centers. Critics say staff at the facilities sometimes pose as medical professionals to lure in women and hand out misleading information about abortions.
The bill would have halted deceptive advertising on billboards, buses, brochures or websites, and it would have given the state Attorney General’s office the power to seek a court order to stop those deceptive practices. Violators would have received a notice to correct the problem within 10 days. If no action was taken, the attorney general could have appealed to the courts, seeking fines or other penalties.
Detractors argued that the bill threatened the centers’ right to free speech and afforded too much power to Attorney General William Tong, who is serving his first year in office. Wolfgang called the pro-choice lobby “too radical” in its strategy to silence faith-based institutions and characterized its mission as “viewpoint discrimination.”
“It was very obvious that they were just being targeted because they were pro-life,” he said of the pregnancy centers. “The advocates of the bill never produced any objective evidence to prove that women were being deceived.”
But proponents did hold up examples of what they considered specious advertising – screenshots of websites that had “Thinking about abortion?” displayed in large font across the home page. One advocate shared a screen grab of a pregnancy center website that read, “Considering abortion? Care Net is your first step.”
Without licensed medical staff, they argued, the faith-based centers aren’t qualified to provide medical advice.
“For someone using the internet to look for help with an unplanned pregnancy … there is a high chance that their search results may send them to a limited service pregnancy center,” Sarah Croucher, head of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, testified earlier this year.
The bill ultimately died in the Senate Wednesday, with leaders saying they ran out time to debate the issue.
“The crisis pregnancy bill, we found out, was going to be a real marathon talker among the Republicans, so in the end we weren’t able to find a time slot for it that would not have caused a lot of other bills to be sacrificed,” said Sen. President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said members of his party considered the bill unnecessary.
“It’s being pushed by a certain group and we don’t agree with their policies,” he said. “I think it’s, once again, government trying to get involved where government doesn’t belong.”
Despite the setback, Democrats and pro-choice advocates said they are resolved to bring the issue back next year. A similar bill failed to make it out of committee in 2018, and last month’s House approval was deemed a step forward.
“For sure were going to pursue this next year,” Croucher said Thursday. “We are very confident that there are no constitutional protections to deceptive advertising.”
The bill’s journey this session had some positive effects – a few of the centers erased misleading language from their websites after the measure went to a public hearing, she said.
Over the next few months, pro-choice advocates will meet with lawmakers and members of their support network to discuss strategy for future legislation.
“I am frustrated that they didn’t call the bill earlier on, when there was time for debate,” Croucher said, “but I also feel very confident that we’re going to get it through next year.”