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Misleading clients on abortion could cost Illinois pregnancy centers


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois crisis pregnancy centers, which often pop up near abortion facilities to offer information about alternatives, could face penalties if they disseminate misleading or untruthful information.

The move is another Democratic effort to insulate the state's virtually unfettered access to abortion, even as neighboring states restrict it.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzke signed legislation Thursday to immediately apply the state's consumer protection statute to the pregnancy centers, non-medical facilities that offer some services to pregnant women and girls, such as ultrasound. They often discourage abortion by using counseling, material support and/or housing in an effort to persuade women to bring their pregnancies to term.

The pregnancy centers wasted little time challenging the law's constitutionality. The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, a national network of pregnancy help centers; and several centers in Illinois filed a federal lawsuit in Rockford seeking a restraining order and injunction against the state's enforcement.

“This law is a blatant attempt to chill and silence pro-life speech under the guise of ‘consumer protection,’” said Peter Breen, executive vice president of the Thomas More Society, which represents the plaintiffs. “Pregnancy help ministries provide real options and assistance to women and families in need."

He accused politicians of targeting the ministries "solely because of their pro-life viewpoint.”

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says crisis pregnancy centers “represent themselves as legitimate reproductive health care clinics providing care for pregnant people but actually aim to dissuade people from accessing certain types of reproductive health care, including abortion care and even contraceptive options.”

The centers are often supported by groups that oppose abortion. As unregulated non-medical sites, they're under no obligation to follow federal health care privacy law.

“Women need access to comprehensive, fact-based health care when making critical decisions about their own health — not manipulation or misinformation from politically motivated, non-medical actors,” Pritzker said. Signing the law means “ensuring Illinoisans can make their own decisions about their bodies using accurate and safe information.”

Sponsored by Rep. Terra Costa Howard of Glen Ellyn and Chicago Sen. Celina Villanueva, both Democrats, the measure was one of several adopted last spring by the Democrat-dominated Legislature, aiming to protect abortion access. Other measures attempt to keep neighboring states from taking action against their own residents or physicians who cross into Illinois for services. Several Republican-led states have been restricting abortion in the year since the U.S. Supreme Court returned their right to do so.

States with Republican-controlled Legislatures have increased aid to pregnancy crisis centers, arguing that they provide alternatives. Missouri and Mississippi offer income tax credits to their donors; and in Kansas, anti-abortion lawmakers overrode Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of $2 million in direct state funding.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who's tasked with enforcing the law, said there are about 100 crisis pregnancy centers in the state. The state's new statute allows fines of up to $50,000 and carries the option of court orders to stop the banned activities.

Anti-abortion groups such as Illinois Right to Life have defended their practices.

Ralph Rivera, legislative chairman for Right to Life, was relieved to hear of the quick court action seeking a halt to the law. He maintains it not only chills free speech, is too vague in spelling out what the state might consider a violation. During debate on the House floor in May, Republicans pounded the bill's sponsor for specifics and to each question, she responded that action would be at the attorney general's discretion.

“These centers are scared,” Rivera said. “They don't know if they've crossed the line and the attorney general will take them to court and demand all their records, a list of all their donors,” Rivera said.

The pregnancy centers have won in court before. A 2016 law requiring them to provide information on where clients could get an abortion was halted by a federal appeals court and still awaits trial court argument. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that a similar law in California was unconstitutional.


AP Political Writer John Hanna contributed from Topeka, Kansas.