Maribel Arias was a Mexican immigrant to New York City with few local contacts or friends. After discovering that Arias was pregnant, both her boyfriend and her only nearby relative abandoned her.

"I had no help from anyone," says Arias, who was 28 at the time. "I felt my whole world was coming to an end."

Encouraged by a friend to visit the Expectant Mother Care (EMC) center in the South Bronx, Arias arrived at the center still undecided on whether she would have an abortion.

But after talking with center Director Ishmael Rodriguez, who showed Arias a video about abortion and told her she could stay at a shelter for pregnant women, Arias decided to keep her baby.

"They gave me a lot of moral support," Arias says. "They helped me realize I would survive this."

Despite such success stories, crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) in New York are fighting a pitched battle for survival.

In January, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer subpoenaed reams of documents pertaining to their operating procedures to determine whether the centers have engaged in "false advertising and deceptive business practices" and the unlicensed practice of medicine. The subpoenas covered 24 pregnancy centers and demanded the names of all staff members, their credentials, training materials, promotional information, and all policies relating to client referrals.

The centers mounted an aggressive defense. Attorneys filed petitions in seven New York courts to quash the subpoenas. They argued that the attorney general lacked evidence and was attempting to regulate noncommercial speech and the right to free association, protected under the Constitution. They said that Spitzer's legal actions stem from his close ties with the abortion rights movement.

Their efforts worked. Spitzer withdrew the subpoenas on February 27, but announced that one of the 24 centers had agreed to change its practices.

Speech rights

Most of the 24 centers, though, are in no mood to make concessions. "We hope this outcome in the abortion capital of the United States sends a clear message nationwide that [pregnancy centers] will no longer allow their First Amendment rights to be trammeled," chief litigation counsel Nathan Adams of the Christian Legal Society said in a statement. Adams is representing five of the 24 centers and three national parent organizations.

Spitzer spokesman Darren Dopp says the subpoenas were withdrawn to foster discussions with the centers. Birthright of Victor New York Inc. is one center that agreed to new restrictions.

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"The attorney general preyed on the smallest CPC in the state and got them to cave on severe restrictions of their First Amendment rights," says EMC founder Chris Slattery, whose five centers remain under investigation. "This is the most restrictive set of regulations on a CPC's operations ever established."

The agreement requires Birthright to clearly inform those who inquire about abortion that it does not provide abortions or abortion referrals. It must disclose verbally and in writing that it is not a licensed medical provider qualified to diagnose pregnancy. Birthright must also state in its advertising that its pregnancy tests are self-administered and tell those who call or visit that it is not a medical facility.

Dopp says the agreement is closely modeled on consent decrees two previous New York attorneys general reached with CPCs. Birthright says its agreement differs substantially from an earlier consent judgment and will not remove any of the center's constitutional rights.

Slattery of EMC says his attorneys will likely challenge a previous consent decree that the organization signed in 1987 to "reduce the restrictions we are currently under."

Other centers under investigation include those operated by Care Net, Heartbeat International, and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA). The centers offer free pregnancy tests and abortion alternatives such as counseling, childbirth and parenting classes, and medical referrals.

Not all centers follow the same guidelines or practices. A source affiliated with one center under investigation told Christianity Today, "The bottom line is, we do get people in here that think we do abortions. We don't feel compelled to be so explicit [on the phone] that the majority of women would hang up on us."

Other CPC organizations say they do not look favorably on such behavior. "Deception is never something we condone," says NIFLA President Thomas Glessner.

Dopp says the attorney general has strong "indications that some centers have misled women" by misrepresenting their services, and have violated previous consent degrees prohibiting pregnancy testing and "the diagnosis of pregnancy." Defenders call the claim ludicrous.

"They want to claim that free pregnancy tests constitute the unauthorized practice of medicine," says Adams.

Political paybacks?

Supporters of the centers say the legal offensive is politically motivated, citing Spitzer's close ties with abortion rights groups. Spitzer's accusations mirror those of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL).

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Abortion-rights activists call crisis pregnancy centers "stealth clinics" or "compulsory pregnancy indoctrination centers." NARAL alleges the groups are fronts designed to target and intimidate women seeking abortions.

An undated 60-page NARAL booklet, Unmasking Fake Clinics, instructs activists to visit centers, pretending to be pregnant, and secretly tape-record meetings with staff. The booklet says the gathered information should be presented to "a sympathetic state attorney general who may be persuaded to pursue an undercover investigation." The booklet further lists a goal of obtaining "a court order prohibiting a CPC from engaging in unlawful practices, such as deceptive advertising or unauthorized practice of medicine."

CPC defenders say Spitzer's investigation and NARAL's campaign are too similar to be unrelated—a charge Spitzer's office denies. But center supporters cite a January 1999 speech in which Spitzer told NARAL that its commitment to protecting reproductive rights "is my commitment." Spitzer also established a tax-subsidized Unit for Reproductive Rights.

Slattery tells CT, "This is a political witch hunt in an election year for the attorney general, who is trying to pay back Planned Parenthood and NARAL for their aggressive political support."

NARAL did not respond to requests for comment. Spitzer, 39, is running for reelection in the fall.

A New York NARAL Political Action Committee brochure says that "NARAL/NY was central to the narrow yet critical triumph by Eliot Spitzer in the race for Attorney General" in 1998. The brochure also quotes Spitzer, a Democrat, as saying that "NARAL/NY was instrumental in my victory."

"To suggest this is some type of crusade is wrong," says Dopp. The attorney general, he adds, has evidence that Slattery's organization used deceptive advertising to imply that its centers performed abortions.

Adams says his centers are willing to enter discussions with the attorney general's office, but his clients "will reject outright" a similar settlement agreement.

Arias is grateful for the services EMC provided. Arias says she cannot imagine life without her 15-month-old son, Walter. "He's the most beautiful child in the world," she says. "He's very active, very smart. I love him."

Beverly Washington of the Bronx, New York, says she doesn't remember how EMC advertised itself, and she doesn't care. Her son, Ali, is now 3. "All I know is they saved my baby's life," Washington says. "They gave me a choice. Now I have a beautiful son, who everybody absolutely adores. They gave me some hope, and if that's a crime, so be it."

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Related Elsewhere

Previous Christianity Today coverage includes:

N.Y. Prolifers See Partial VictoryNew York attorney general withdraws subpoenas targeting crisis pregnancy centers. (March 1, 2002)

In February, The Washington Times reported that two dozen pro-life pregnancy centers in New York were fighting back against the subpoenas.

Washington Times columnist Michelle Malkin argues that, "This fishing expedition by Mr. Spitzer's 'reproductive rights unit' is an obvious attempt to drain the centers of their private funding and to scare the centers' staffs — made up mostly of housewives, retirees, teachers and nurses."

For similar coverage, see Christianity Today'slife ethics archive.

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