FemDems, the Women’s Issues Committee of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, is working to implement legislation in Ann Arbor that would require pregnancy centers that don’t offer or make referrals for abortions or birth control services to post disclaimer signs.

The potential legislation is modeled after a city council bill that passed in Baltimore, Md. last year on Nov. 23. 2009. The new law requires the disclaimer signs to be conspicuously posted in the waiting rooms of limited-service pregnancy centers and to be easily readable and written in both English and Spanish, according to the bill.

LSA sophomore Brendan Campbell, co-chair of the FemDems, said the group will soon begin working with the Ann Arbor City Council to try and develop a similar bill. Eventually the group would like to see the legislation move on to Washtenaw County and, later, the entire state, so that all women in Michigan will be provided with accurate information, he said.

“The problem is that without these signs women can go into these pregnancy centers thinking that they offer a full range of options when in fact they don’t,” Campbell said. “It’s not even about preventing the operation or the existence of these centers, so much as it’s providing truth in advertising and providing full information about what the centers provide.”

Campbell also said this is an issue that goes beyond the pro-life and pro-choice debate and is really more about enabling women to evaluate their options by having access to more accurate information.

“It comes down to that this isn’t a pro-life–pro-choice issue or anything like that. It really is all about just providing more information to women and empowering women to make decisions for themselves,” he said.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Democratic president of the Baltimore City Council and the lead sponsor of the bill in Baltimore, said the bill is crucial in making sure that women have knowledge of the kinds of services a pregnancy center offers and doesn’t offer.

“I’m pleased that my City Council colleagues acted to secure women’s access to accurate and safe medical information in Baltimore city,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Though the new law — which Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who submitted her resignation yesterday after being convicted last month of embezzling gift cards meant for the needy for personal use, signed Dec. 4, 2009 and which took effect Jan. 2 — mandates that all pregnancy clinics display the signs, Rawlings-Blake said the new requirement will in no way hinder the practices of the clinics.

“This new law will not hamper the work of non-profit organizations that assist future mothers,” Rawlings-Blake said. “I’m honored to have the support of many experts in the public health community for this effort to protect women’s access to accurate health information.”

LSA sophomore Kaitlin Henry and LSA freshman Evan Nichols wrote a blog post Dec. 10 on the University College Democrats blog that described their experience going to Arbor Vitae Women’s Center — a nonprofit clinic located next to the ground floor of Starbucks on State Street — as an undercover couple seeking birth control advice.

While they were at the center, they had to indicate their religious affiliation on consent forms and were asked about their marital status, they wrote in the post called, “FemDems Covert Op: Local CPC Exposed.” These questions, they wrote, show the clinic demonstrates a pro-life bias.

According to the blog, Henry was also shown various birth control methods though the employee emphasized natural family planning, which is considered a form of birth control in which the couple avoids copulation when the woman is ovulating.

“We witnessed firsthand that Arbor Vitae has the bias that defines crisis pregnancy centers,” they wrote in the blog. “While the existence of a religious or pro-life family planning center on campus is not inherently bad, we believe that its motives should be disclosed to the public.”

Campbell explained the reasoning for the undercover operation was for the FemDems to see how the center was actually run before making any claims that would contribute to their efforts toward the legislation.

“For us, the reason why we went in was we didn’t want to base any sort of campaign or effort on our part on rumor or speculation,” Campbell said. “We wanted to experience first hand what would happen if someone were to enter a crisis pregnancy center. And so for us it was more of a fact-finding mission than anything else.”

They wrote that this misinformation is especially troubling given that “the center targets students in its advertisements.”

Despite the blog post’s claim that Arbor Vitae has a religious bias, Suzanne Abdalla, director of Arbor Vitae, said they are not a religious organization but that the center is “life-affirming” since they don’t make referral for or offer abortion services.

At Arbor Vitae, a new client is given consent forms outlining exactly what services they offer, which includes free pregnancy testing, free ultrasounds and free consulting about pregnancy options, Abdalla said.

“What we do is offer women the knowledge and the tools they need to make their decision,” she said. “We make sure that’s clear in our advertising and also in our consent forms and everything. The whole point of us existing is that we don’t offer abortion and we don’t do any of that. We just offer (a woman) information so she can make a decision.”

Abdalla said she thinks the legislation requiring pregnancy centers in Baltimore to display signs indicating they don’t offer abortion services just reinforces what women’s centers already do. She called it “wasteful legislation,” since most women’s centers already inform clients of their services.

“It’s kind of the same as saying you own a grocery store or something, but having to advertise that you don’t sell cars,” Abdalla said. “And then the city of Baltimore is going to the trouble of actually creating a law to say that you don’t sell cars? It’s even more of a waste.”

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