A new law in Vermont may end up shutting down pro-life pregnancy centers, banning them from offering non-medical services and providing post-abortion counseling, as well as subjecting them to steep fines if the state deems their advertising “misleads” women into thinking they provide or promote abortions.
Two Vermont faith-based pregnancy centers have filed a lawsuit challenging the new law that infringes on pregnancy centers’ ability to exercise their right of free speech and provide services to women for their pregnancies.
Assisting the pregnancy centers in their fight is the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates. NIFLA became recognized in the public sphere in 2018 when it challenged the constitutionality of California’s FACT Act, which mandated that pro-life pregnancy centers feature posters in their facilities informing patients where they could get an abortion. In an incredible Supreme Court ruling for free speech and pregnancy centers, NIFLA won.
The Vermont Legislature, which leans heavily Democrat, passed and Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, signed S-37, a bill that “censors the centers’ ability to advertise their free services,” according to the lawsuit. If the state attorney deems that a center’s advertising of said services is “misleading” to the public—a very subjective determination—it could face up to $10,000 in fines for each violation.
The law also bans pregnancy centers from offering non-medical services which, most importantly, include post-abortion information and counseling. It applies only to pro-life pregnancy centers and excludes abortion clinics that provide identical information. The law is incredibly biased, even for Vermont.
“Women who become unexpectedly pregnant should be empowered with life-affirming options, emotional support, and practical resources,” said Alliance Defending Freedom’s legal counsel, Julia Payne, who is representing the pregnancy centers and NIFLA, in a statement.
“Vermont’s law, however, does the opposite—it impedes women’s ability to receive critical services during a difficult time in their lives and suppresses the free-speech rights of faith-based pregnancy centers. Pregnancy centers should be free to serve women and offer the support they need without fear of unjust government punishment,” she said.
The law is so clearly unconstitutional, it’s surprising it passed, even if it’s not quite as egregious as California’s FACT Act, which the Supreme Court struck down. On the other hand, the Vermont Legislature only boasts a handful of pro-life lawmakers, so a law like this exemplifies the dangers of electing a progressive majority at the state level.
True to form, the Legislature showcased its intent for the law, which the lawsuit cited. Lawmakers were concerned that pregnancy centers “that seek to counsel clients against abortion … have become common across the country, including in Vermont” and that false and “misleading advertising by centers that do not offer or refer clients for abortion is of special concern to the State,” according to the Legislature’s official record of findings and legislative intent related to the law.
The legislative findings accuse pregnancy centers of misleading pregnant women by somehow implying that their facilities offer abortion services and, in the same breath, the Legislature said it was concerned that some pregnancy centers may not “openly acknowledge in their advertising, on their websites, and at their facilities that they neither provide abortions nor refer clients to other providers of abortion services.”
It’s not clear where this came from, as it’s hard to imagine any pro-life pregnancy center purposely fooling women into believing they perform abortions, although it’s a popular claim from abortion supporters.
Like California, the state of Vermont cannot compel pregnancy centers to advertise about themselves in only a manner that the state deems fit, apart from prohibitions on false advertising. Must a grocery store advertise it does not sell farm equipment? It is not false advertising for a pro-life pregnancy center to not mention that they don’t provide abortions to clients.
Clearly Vermont’s law is intended to diminish the existence and the good that pregnancy centers do and to continue to showcase abortion as the only viable alternative to pregnancy.
Even before the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, pregnancy centers have proven their value in an America that was slowly becoming increasingly pro-life, at least in some states.
In 2019, 2,700 U.S. pregnancy centers helped almost 2 million people. According to the Pregnancy Center Coalition of Northern New England’s 2022 Impact Report for Vermont, in 2022, Vermont pro-life pregnancy centers helped over “476 male and female clients, performed 176 ultrasounds, 183 pregnancy tests, 59 STD/STI [sexually transmitted disease/sexually transmitted infection] tests, and 617 educational classes, saving the community over $395,770.00.”
It’s unfortunate to see lawmakers in Vermont pass a bill that so specifically targets organizations that aim to do good, to spread a culture of life, and to genuinely help women and children in need. We need more of these types of organizations in a post-Dobbs world, not fewer—and Vermont’s law is one way to guarantee they struggle, or even disappear, unless the lawsuit succeeds and it is struck down.
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