Why Can't New York City Put Anti-Abortion Pregnancy Centers Out of Business?
On the 12th floor of a cavernous office building in downtown Brooklyn, Linda Marzulla, white-haired and soothing, is consoling an overheated, teary teenager with a pink mohawk. The girl has been referred for a sonogram, but there's been a mistake. There are no sonograms today. The girl sweats and tries not to cry as Marzulla fusses. "Get her some water," she instructs an intern.
But if Expectant Mother Care is ill-prepared on this day to deal with its central mission—helping pregnant women—Marzulla can at least provide a tour. The back rooms of the center contain a slightly battered exam table, a sonogram machine, unstaffed at the moment, and a banner familiar to anyone who rides the subway: the words "FREE ABORTION ALTERNATIVES" beside a photo of worried-looking white girl in a pink hoodie.
"Alternatives means another way out," Marzulla always tells her young clients. She means alternatives from abortion and the world of suffering she believes it brings.
They're called crisis pregnancy centers, staffed by anti-abortion groups and often sited near Planned Parenthoods and hospitals. Expectant Mother Care's Brooklyn office is six floors above a Planned Parenthood. Its services come free, and the menu has an unmistakable theme: drugstore pregnancy tests, "pro-life decision counseling," and sonograms, when someone's around to run the machine. Women also get instructions on how to sign up for Medicaid and help finding things like baby clothes and car seats.
What the agency can't help with: abortion, emergency contraception, or birth control. The counseling at such places is designed to steer pregnant women toward parenting or adoption through a game plan best described as "by any means necessary." Agency counselors have been known to tell women that abortion is a mortal sin, that it will kill them or cause horrific problems. Visitors to EMC can peruse a dour pamphlet on RU-486—the pill used in medication abortions—which warns that the drug may be fatal. (That's true, in a sense. According to the FDA, 14 women died after taking the drug between 2000 and 2011; 1.5 million others did not.)
Chris Slattery, EMC's founder and president, says that women arriving at any of his 12 New York City locations will be told that abortion "significantly increases" their risk of breast cancer. Mention that the National Cancer Institute and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists both disagree, and he'll denounce them as biased.
"It has not been debunked by an objective organization," he says. "It's been covered up by an organization that's in league with the abortion industry. Their boards are packed with abortion advocates."
But critics say EMC is the specialist in deception. In 2010, Balin Anderson, a social worker with Planned Parenthood, testified before the City Council that workers from EMC were posing as Planned Parenthood staff and "intercepting" their patients. A security guard outside Planned Parenthood also confirms that a "lady with the white hair"—he seems to mean Marzulla—has asked him more than once to send patients to EMC instead.
There's also a question of medical care: EMC doesn't have doctors on staff. Slattery has a volunteer physician from SUNY Downstate who comes once a week to provide prenatal care and supervise ultrasounds, which allows him to claim that EMC is "affiliated with SUNY Downstate Medical Center." But Stephanie Toti, an attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, finds this deliberately misleading.
"In most states, that would be considered malpractice," she says. "The issue is, really, what are they telling consumers? Are they explaining up front that while a doctor comes in once a week, the person who is going to be visiting with you today is not a doctor and has no medical training?"
It's that sort of opacity that's gotten Expectant Mother Care and other anti-abortion centers attention from two previous New York attorneys general. In May, that became three, when current AG Eric Schneiderman sent Slattery a lengthy subpoena requesting information on EMC's hiring practices, facilities, staffing, training, and client-referral policies.
In court filings, the AG's office argued that EMC "may be engaged in the unauthorized practice of medicine," and that it "purports" to be a medical center. After all, clients are asked for medical information, and staffers make "diagnoses regarding pregnancy, ectopic pregnancy, and gestational age." And despite his claim of "affiliation" with SUNY Downstate, Slattery insisted in his own affidavit that EMC provides "only non-medical advice."
The subpoenas are nothing new: Slattery got his first in 1987. He blames it on "a Planned Parenthood operative" who "organized a campaign to smear and tar-and-feather the pregnancy centers, starting with mine."
Under threat of prosecution, Slattery signed an agreement with then-Attorney General Robert Abrams, promising to tell clients up front that EMC didn't perform or refer women for abortions. But he says he assumed the agreement expired when Abrams left office.
When Eliot Spitzer was attorney general, he subpoenaed Slattery again, this time during an investigation of an upstate anti-abortion group called Birthright in Victor. It looked for a moment as if Spitzer was about to extend the investigation to centers around the state, including EMC. Instead, Birthright quietly agreed to post a sign near its front door that read "NOT A MEDICAL FACILITY," and not to advertise under the "Clinics" section of the phone book.
The subpoenas against EMC were dropped without comment. To date, no one has ever successfully sued EMC for false advertising.
But the city remained concerned about groups holding themselves out as medical providers. In 2011, the City Council passed a law requiring crisis pregnancy centers to openly specify the services they don't provide—like abortions and emergency contraception—and whether they have a doctor on staff.
A federal judge struck down that law. The American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian version of the ACLU, has argued that requiring those signs violates the centers' right to freedom of speech and religion. The case is before a federal appeals court, with a decision expected soon.
Meanwhile, Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney has spent years trying to pass the Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women's Health Services Act. It calls for the Federal Trade Commission to regulate CPCs and the way they market themselves to the public.
"A number of young women who were very upset by their experiences came to me," Maloney says. "The first rules of medicine should always be: Don't make it worse." Her bill, she says, "would force [the centers] to tell the truth."
But Maloney's bill has stumbled over the past seven years in the Republican-dominated House. And Slattery remains defiant, calling Schneiderman's subpoena a politically motivated "witch-hunt," the city's proposal unconstitutional, and Maloney's efforts "a stupid little bill she does for self-promotion."
As his language indicates, he isn't hesitant to play the victim card. EMC's website has an entire section devoted to "Attacks on EMC." And when he began to fear that the Voice would mischaracterize his operation, he threatened the paper with litigation.
"I will sue the Village Voice and you personally," he shouted through the phone. "I've had so many idiots writing stories. They know nothing about what they're talking about, and their only agenda is to smear me. I will sue you guys if you get this one wrong. I just want you to tell the truth. If you have any self-respect, you'll get this right."
When he calms, Slattery says he's confident that no one will succeed in shutting EMC down. But he sounds tired.
"I've been going through this since 1987," he says. "I'm 58 years old. How many more of these do I have to go through? This is just a distraction. I'm out there trying to save babies. I'm busy."
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