Illinois’ Senate Bill 1909, which could shut down life-saving pregnancy centers, was signed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week. Attorneys with the Thomas More Society immediately filed a federal lawsuit, NIFLA et al. v. Raoul, seeking a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction from the bill.
SB 1909’s title, “Deceptive Practices of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers Act,” shows how state abortion proponents aim to put pregnancy centers under suspicion. But the evidence tells a different story. Pregnancy centers have a record of providing critical medical help to thousands of women experiencing unexpected pregnancies. Detractors have failed to demonstrate why these centers require special fraud laws beyond what already exists.
“What this act does is allow the attorney general’s office to investigate situations, to investigate such claims that are under the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Practices Act,” said Terra Costa Howard, Illinois representative and chief House sponsor of SB 1909 at an April 25 Health Care Availability and Accessibility Committee (HCAAC) hearing. When signing the bill, the governor similarly claimed the bill “[empowers] the attorney general’s office to battle deceptive practices.”
However, according to the attorney general’s office, they already have the ability to investigate such situations without SB 1909. This was admitted during a March 29 Senate Executive Committee hearing.
“[T]his bill clarifies our ability to already do this under the Consumer Fraud Act,” said Ashley Hokenson, Illinois deputy attorney general. “Under the Consumer Fraud Act, we can already bring claims for unfair and deceptive practices.”
What Fraud Is Being Fought?
Despite the attorney general office’s admission, supporters of SB 1909 have been unable to identify a pattern of supposed deceptive legal violations by the pregnancy help industry. Nor have they been able to explain why the attorney general has not availed existing fraud law if a pattern of past violations actually existed.
A client of the Thomas More Society law firm filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Illinois complaints over the past 10 years. The results of that request revealed no verifiable complaints against Illinois pregnancy centers.
“The attorney general has actually received zero complaints from members of the public against an Illinois pregnancy help center for alleged violations of the Deceptive Business Practices Act,” said Peter Breen, vice president and head of litigation of the Thomas More Society and former Illinois state representative. “The handful of documents we received were about squabbles on the sidewalk or where an ultrasound van should park. None of the complaints resulted in any legal action.”
“In the First Amendment context, the burden is on the government to show that it needs whatever new regulations are being proposed,” Breen said. “But here, in addition to there being no actual complaints, the attorney general’s office has to show that it’s used its immediately available legal means, which is the existing Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Practices Act; Department of Financial, Professional Regulation Acts; and otherwise.”
Costa Howard claimed she knew “story after story” of lies told to women at pregnancy centers. Bill supporters ultimately showed themselves as opponents of a fictional caricature of what pregnancy resource centers are. “These fake clinics were set up specifically to deceive patients who are seeking reproductive healthcare,” said Howard.
Opponents of the bill recognized SB 1909’s lack of grounding. “We need sound proof,” said Illinois Rep. Kevin Schmidt to the bill’s supporters. “And you don’t have any proof.”
Time and again, bill supporters failed to account for the objections, but they passed the legislation anyway, most recently in the House on May 11. The representatives’ votes did not reflect that of the Illinois public. Witness slips, by which Illinois citizens can formally voice their opinion for or against a bill, overwhelmingly opposed the bill by 18,116 to 3,945.
Of additional concern, the attorney general’s office issued conflicting statements regarding the enforcement of SB 1909 if it were elevated to law. After the March 29 and April 25 committee hearings, the attorney general’s office issued a press release applauding each partisan vote. Both releases included a personal anecdote from the AG.
“I experienced deceptive crisis pregnancy center tactics firsthand,” said Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. “People who appeared as though they might work there were outside attempting to divert us away from the health center.”
However, the attorney general’s office elsewhere denied that scenario would be considered deceptive under SB 1909. During the April hearing, Deputy Attorney General Hokenson insisted the bill “only applies” to pregnancy center staff and that people with “a sign and standing in front of Planned Parenthood would not fall under this bill.” Although the AG claims to have witnessed a “deceptive” act relevant to SB 1909, he took no action against it under the very laws his office confirms were available to him.
No Definition of Deception
During the hearings, the attorney general’s office would not define the boundaries for what constituted a deceptive practice. It planned to decide after the fact. For example, the bill states it would be misleading to conceal data “that shows the risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than the risk of death associated with an abortion.” However, State Sen. Sue Rezin cited another medical study that reveals the flaw in the study, referenced by SB 1909, because “abortion reporting is not required by federal law” and therefore adverse effects of abortion are under-reported. Rezin asked if the attorney general would initiate a deceptive practices investigation if a pregnancy center cited such contrary data.
Hokenson replied, “We would evaluate on a case-by-case basis.” She responded to similar questions with that verbatim noncommittal answer at least a dozen times.
“These … items are hotly disputed between pro-life and pro-choice advocates,” said Breen. “And the government can’t shut down a public debate on issues like this or otherwise force or coerce people of faith, who have good faith beliefs … into delivering a government talking point.”
Bill proponents are “targeting one side of the argument,” Rep. William Hauter added at the HCAAC hearing.
Challenged in Court
Several state representatives condemned the bill’s passage. “This legislation is not about protecting anyone but the monsters in our state who celebrate the brutal murder of innocent children as a ‘right,’” they wrote. “[The bill] is an overt persecution of people whose only crime is disagreeing with the abortion death cult. Senate Bill 1909 will be challenged in court. It will be overturned, and we will continue to speak out against the extreme positions of the pro-abortion advocates in our state.”
Although the language of the bill claims to facilitate a woman’s “informed” decision, SB 1909 obstructs informed decisions. The federal lawsuit recognizes the irony, stating that SB 1909 reduces the ability of a pregnant woman to receive information necessary to make an informed decision. Instead, the law allows “only the limited data approved by the state, instead of allowing her to hear both sides’ advocacy and information before making an abortion decision.”
In fact, it is the defendants in the lawsuit who are the ones being deceptive.