Under the guise of stopping deceptive business practices, Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly have introduced and passed bills targeting pro-life pregnancy centers.
In February, Democratic legislators introduced two bills that would hurt pregnancy centers, including the Waterleaf Women’s Center, where I work. State Democrats sponsored the “Deceptive Practices of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers Act” in matching bills HB 2463 and SB 1909. One bill, SB 1909, passed the state Senate on Friday. The state House has not yet voted on its bill.
The act’s stated purpose is to protect women against “deceptive, fraudulent, and misleading practices” as they make “autonomous” decisions about their “reproductive health.” Under the act, when it “appears” to the attorney general a violation has occurred, a pregnancy center is subject to fines of up to $50,000.
Witness slips — which give citizens and organizations in Illinois the right to publicly voice their opinions on legislation — overwhelmingly opposed the Senate bill by a tally of 8,725 to 2,652 at deadline. Yet the bill passed the Senate executive committee on Wednesday and the full Senate on Friday.
When Democrats introduced the bill, criticisms immediately began. Writing at the Illinois Family Institute, Jonathan Alban cited the act’s “specious use of language” and the attempt to “punish pregnancy centers … for their unwillingness to commit murder.”
“This act is intended to shut us down. Never in our 14-year history have I seen anything so shocking,” said Kelly Rozanski, board president and co-founder of Waterleaf Women’s Center in Aurora.
“Clinics like Waterleaf are committed to providing women with a safe space where she can receive compassionate care and truthful medical information from licensed medical professionals,” she continued. “Because services are free, there is no ulterior motive.”
Eric Scheidler, executive director of Pro-Life Action League, echoed the opinion that the legislation, if passed and signed into law, would shut down pro-life pregnancy centers.
“This act could mire pregnancy centers in litigation that could unjustly force them to close their doors,” he said.
The act explicitly states a “limited services pregnancy center” is one that “does not directly provide abortions.” Although abortion facilities do not provide pregnancy services such as delivering babies, they are not considered “limited” according to the act and thus are not in its crosshairs.
By the bill’s logic, a pregnancy center could provide actual prenatal care — pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, prenatal visits, nutrition and lifestyle counseling, mental and spiritual guidance, and STD tests — but still be considered “limited” if it refuses to perform abortions. Meanwhile, a Planned Parenthood facility could provide nothing except abortions, and the bill would consider it a full-service pregnancy center.
The act has left the definition of “deceptive” unclear. It refers to “deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, or misrepresentation, or the concealment, suppression, or omission of any material fact.” The ultimate criteria given is if the attorney general declares it “appears” deception has occurred. The act also omits parameters for what is an “omission of any material fact.”
“The language of the bill is overly broad,” wrote Mary Kate Zander, executive director of Illinois Right to Life. “There is no guidance as to what is a ‘material fact.’ This could lead to an unlimited interpretation that would force pregnancy help centers to inform a pregnant woman about how to obtain an abortion.”
Several states in recent years have attempted to enact similar laws targeting pregnancy help centers as a favor to the abortion industry. The very notion of the truth is at the forefront of these acts.
A relevant U.S. Supreme Court case was NIFLA v. Becerra in 2018. California attempted to force licensed pregnancy centers to “notify women that California provides free or low-cost services, including abortions, and give them a phone number to call.” The court rejected the idea that pregnancy centers could be subjected to compelled speech by making abortion referrals against their will.
Commenting on NIFLA v. Becerra in 2018, Illinois Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, who co-sponsored HB 2463, tweeted: “In another disappointing ruling the Supreme Court has sided with anti-abortion pregnancy clinics that mislead women.”
As with the language of the Illinois act, no cause was given as to why the new law, which goes beyond existing deception law, was merited in the first place.
“You’d think with 2,800-plus pregnancy help centers in the U.S., the current laws would have been easy to use to stop the ‘deceptive advertising’ practices the abortion proponents rail about. But that’s not happened,” said Jor-El Godsey, president of Heartbeat International, Inc.
One of the sponsors of SB 1909, Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, provided an example of what she considers deceptive. She remarked Thursday that pregnancy centers make “false claims that abortion causes cancer.”
The statement did not include an example of a pregnancy center declaring that abortion “causes” cancer. Multiple scientific studies have concluded, however, that there is an increased risk of breast cancer associated with abortion.
This came to the forefront during the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson case in 2022. The American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists submitted an amicus brief stating: “Since 1957, at least 41 studies have shown a positive, statistically significant association between induced abortion and breast cancer.”
“Abortion arrests breast tissue in an immature state, before it can produce milk, leaving it vulnerable to cancer,” the pro-life medical group wrote.
If a pregnancy center cites one of the dozens of studies about abortion and breast cancer, can the state’s attorney general instead favor Villanueva’s false interpretation and sue the pregnancy center for “deceptive” practices?
“‘[T]he best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,'” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion of NIFLA v. Becerra, citing Abrams v. United States. “… [A]nd the people lose when the government is the one deciding which ideas should prevail.”