As pro-lifers march in Washington and elsewhere this week, pro-choicers are trying out a new way to knock out their toughest opponents -- those who help women make an informed choice on abortion.
Some 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) around the country give women factual information about fetal development and the options they face, but New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer is harassing them in a way that could damage not only pro-life efforts but the First Amendment.
Here's some background: A year ago the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) put out a big booklet listing lots of ways to undermine CPCs. NARAL praised one in particular: "Persuade state attorney general to bring litigation against targeted CPCs," with the goal of requiring "new operating guidelines for CPCs."
We're seeing in liberal New York how the pointed advice in NARAL's booklet -- "Target: Attorney General" -- works out in practice. New York's Spitzer emphatically supports abortion and has taken campaign bucks from NARAL's political action committee. Earlier this month, he delighted his backers by agreeing to a creative attack on CPCs: accuse them of practicing medicine without a license.
The accusation is not in response to any problem, says Chris Slattery, founder and president of Expectant Mother Care. EMC is one of the five New York CPC organizations that received subpoenas last month demanding information about how the CPCs are "diagnosing and advising persons on medical options." EMC, founded in 1985, has served over 30,000 clients since then without facing any lawsuits. It now operates five centers that serve over 4,000 girls and women each year.
Nor is the accusation an attempt to help abortionists who can't help themselves. In New York City, abortionists clearly outmuscle CPCs, as even the Verizon yellow pages show: one page of "abortion alternatives" compared with seven pages for abortionists.
Nevertheless, if a judge goes along with the notion that counseling about abortion is illegally practicing medicine, and other judges uphold that decision, many New York CPCs will have to shut down: They don't charge anything for their counseling, and they depend on trained volunteers. If a precedent established in New York were to lead to new restrictions across the country, almost every CPC will be vulnerable. And more: Anything that touches on medical ethics could become the province of physicians, with everyone else gagged.
But the counterattack is now beginning. South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon has sent a letter to Spitzer criticizing the New Yorker's "ill-advised course of action." Condon notes that CPC volunteers "freely give of themselves with a helpful hand and a loving heart," and that "the heavy hand of the government investigation ... will inevitably discourage community service and volunteerism." Meanwhile, the American Center for Law and Justice and other legal groups are coming to the defense of the CPCs, calling Spitzer's action "clearly a case of discrimination and harassment."
Clearly, America remains conflicted by abortion, as it was by slavery 150 years ago, but attempts to pass gag laws then only made the situation worse. The issue of slavery could not be left just to property-management specialists, and the issue of abortion cannot be left only to doctors to decide. Whether we are pro-life or pro-choice, we should not cut off debate on this matter, or tell compassionate people they cannot offer counsel unless they are physicians.
To fight Spitzer's overreaching, we need a coalition of not only pro-lifers, but all those who value the First Amendment. For example, New York Times columnist William Safire, who is vigilant about free speech issues, should pay attention to this one in his own backyard. Sadly, some New York journalists and politicians have become Park Avenue poodles for abortionists, but maybe folks from South Carolina, Texas and elsewhere can remind them of a little thing called the Constitution.