Thomas More Society attorneys are suing Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to halt the enforcement of a new law that declares pro-life speech to be a “deceptive business practice.” This new law, enacted as Senate Bill 1909, tramples the free speech and religious exercise rights of pro-life pregnancy help centers and sidewalk counselors across Illinois.
Thomas More Society is representing the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates—or NIFLA—along with local pregnancy help centers and sidewalk counseling organizations, including the Pro-Life Action League and Rockford Family Initiative, in seeking an emergency temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against enforcement of SB 1909. NIFLA has 81 pregnancy center members across the Land of Lincoln, 60 of which provide medical services under the supervision of medical directors, who are licensed Illinois medical physicians.
Illinois’ pregnancy help ministries offer a variety of health, material, emotional, and spiritual support to women facing difficult pregnancies or post-abortion trauma, including limited obstetric ultrasounds (in clinics with licensed medical directors), pregnancy tests, STD testing, education on fetal development, education on abortion, information about abortion alternatives such as adoption, parenting classes, diapers, wipes, car seats, baby clothes, and locating housing, childcare, food, and medical assistance—all at no cost to the women and families they serve. All of their Plaintiffs are also all religious organizations motivated by their sincerely held religious beliefs to provide accurate information about abortion and the unborn and to assist women in most need of help.
Senate Bill 1909, signed into law July 27, 2023, by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, targets pregnancy help ministries by labeling their constitutionally protected speech—but not abortion facilities’ speech—as so-called “deceptive business practices,” on account of their pro-life viewpoint. It also expressly exempts licensed healthcare providers and hospitals from its restrictions.
In short, the law openly targets alleged pro-life “misinformation” on the basis that that pro-life views conflict with Illinois’s rampant pro-abortion ideology. But in doing so the law runs headlong into bedrock protections of the First Amendment, which prohibit government from cutting off one side of ongoing controversies by censoring speech with which it disagrees, and from discriminating against religiously motivated speech. “This law is a blatant attempt to chill and silence protected pro-life speech under the guise of ‘consumer protection,’ while wholly exempting abortion facilities from the same restrictions,’” said Peter Breen, Thomas More Society Executive Vice President and Head of Litigation. “It is difficult to conceive of a more discriminatory law or one that so flagrantly violates the First Amendment.”
SB 1909—the “Deceptive Practices of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers Act”—is a blatant attempt to stamp out access to vital women’s pregnancy resources across the state, simply because pregnancy help centers do not provide abortions or “emergency contraception.”
Here is everything you need to know about Illinois’ “Deceptive Practices of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers Act.”
Targeting pregnancy help ministries in Illinois
With little-to-no guidance on what could be considered “deceptive practices,” pregnancy help ministries could face civil prosecution, including fines of up to $50,000 per violation, injunctions, and even forced dissolution of their nonprofit ministries. All this may be the case if Attorney General Kwame Raoul—who authored the law—deems in his sole discretion that their pro-life speech is “misinformation.” But the budgets of many pregnancy help centers barely exceed $50,000!
The Act amends the state’s existing Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act to define pregnancy help centers as “limited services pregnancy centers,” solely because they do not directly provide or refer for abortions or “emergency contraceptives.” That’s right: even though our pregnancy help centers provide more assistance and services for pregnant women than Planned Parenthood ever would, Illinois politicians have tarred our centers as “limited” and not “comprehensive” just because they won’t participate in terminating pregnancies. This is just one of the reasons the Act is unconstitutional—singling out pro-life organizations on account of their viewpoint, while turning a blind eye to actual deceptive speech by abortion providers and facilities.
Specifically, the law’s express “legislative intent” openly targets alleged pro-life “misinformation.” It specifically states that pro-life pregnancy ministries allegedly:
“…provide grossly inaccurate or misleading information overstating the risks associated with abortion, including conveying untrue claims that abortion causes cancer or infertility and concealing data that shows the risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than the risk of death associated with an abortion. This misinformation is intended to cause undue delays and disruption to protected, time-sensitive reproductive health risks.”
Thus, lawmakers have indicated that pregnancy help ministries may be fined for sharing critical medical information on real risks associated with abortion. It also effectively compels pro-life pregnancy help ministries to share pro-abortion talking points, like the “14-times-safer-than-childbirth” pseudo-statistic, thus crowding out their own pro-life message. NIFLA, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the law, provides and encourages its member clinics to share pamphlets specifically debunking the claim that abortion is 14 times safer than childbirth—with reference to persuasive research from experts like Priscilla Coleman and David Reardon.
“[G]overnment can’t shut down that public debate and force or coerce people of faith into delivering its talking points in favor of abortion, under the guise of ‘deceptive practices,’” Breen testified at the Illinois House committee hearing on April 25. This is especially the case while the state allows abortion facilities to continue engaging in their own controversial speech with impunity.
Further, the law’s definition of pro-life pregnancy ministries is broad enough to capture sidewalk counseling organizations (i.e., “organization[s]” that do not provide or refer for abortion or “emergency contraception,” that have a “primary purpose” to engage in “health counseling service[s]”), which engage in quintessentially protected and peaceful speech on public right-of-ways. Indeed, the legislative history confirmed that the Attorney General and sponsoring senators seek to directly restrict the speech of pro-life individuals on public sidewalks outside abortion facilities.
Mothers considering abortion deserve honest information, not pro-abortion talking points falsely portrayed as medical facts by this Act.
The Act began as an initiative of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, and was drafted and introduced at the personal behest of Attorney General Raoul himself. During the Illinois Senate committee hearing on the bill, Deputy Attorney General for Policy Ashley Hokenson—testifying in support—was asked by state Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Andalusia, whether pregnancy care centers were already subject to the state’s consumer fraud law. “They are. We thought this would be a good idea to clarify that,” Hokenson replied.
Providing clarity, however, is one thing the newly signed Act certainly does not do.
Deceptively vague language
Illinois pregnancy help ministries are given virtually zero guidance as to what qualifies as “misleading” speech under the Act, beyond the express legislative intent to target alleged pro-life “misinformation.” Indeed, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office has refused to deny that SB 1909 could apply to classic (and true) pro-life speech simply because it is so-called “misinformation” from Illinois’s staunch pro-abortion point of view. When Hokenson was asked in the House committee hearing, “[h]ow is a covered organization supposed to know what is or is not” considered an actionable deceptive practice, her reply was that “[w]e would evaluate each on a case-by-case basis.” Representing the Attorney General’s Office before lawmakers, Hokenson’s responses to questions left the door open to the possibility the Act would be used as a cudgel against any pro-life speech.
For example, state Rep. Jackie Hass, R-Kankakee, asked Hokenson whether the Act could be used to fine pregnancy help ministries for sharing information about abortion pill reversal:
Rep. Haas: “Would it be a violation to tell a woman that the abortion pill reversal is possible?”
Deputy AG Hokenson: “We would evaluate each case on a case-by-case basis.”
Rep. Haas: “That the claim that a woman who has taken the first abortion pill may still be able to reverse an abortion as well?”
Deputy AG Hokenson: “We would evaluate each on a case-by-case basis.”
Under the guise of targeting “misleading” information or “concealing” information, the Attorney General’s Office is empowered to prosecute pregnancy help ministries for providing medically pertinent information that may cut against the pro-abortion narrative—as shown by responses given to state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris:
Sen. Rezin: “Is it the intent of the Attorney General to investigate a pregnancy center if it says that the induced abortion is a risk factor for placenta previa?”
Deputy AG Hokenson: “Senator, we would evaluate on a case-by-case basis.”
Sen. Rezin: “Is it the intent of the Attorney General to investigate a pregnancy center, if it says that the induced abortion is associated with higher risk of miscarriage?”
Deputy AG Hokenson: “Senator, we would evaluate on a case-by-case basis.”
Remarkably, the Attorney General’s Office was unwilling to even take examples of quintessentially moral speech off the table as to what could count as a “deceptive practice” in the new Act:
Sen. Rezin: “Would this bill make it a violation to state that life begins at conception?”
Deputy AG Hokenson: “If that is what they would like to say, we would evaluate on a case-by-case basis.”
Similarly, during the House Floor Debate on SB 1909, state Rep. Bill Hauter, R-Morton, asked state Rep. Terra Costa Howard, D-Glen Ellyn—the bill’s House sponsor—whether such examples of quintessentially religious speech would be considered “deceptive practices” as defined by the new Act.
Incredibly, when asked if saying “abortion is sin” would run afoul of the law, Rep. Costa Howard laughed and replied: “That would be the Attorney General's Office to make that determination on a case-by-case basis.” Asking whether claiming “contraception is wrong” would be considered misleading or deceptive elicited the same response.
The deceptively vague language of the Act is ripe for abuse by the Attorney General’s Office to weaponize against the pro-life speech of pregnancy help ministries. So, it stands to ask: Where is the evidence of widespread deceptive business practices on the part of pro-life organizations, that require the law to be “clarified” using such broad and undefined language?
Enacted without evidence
During the Senate committee hearing on March 29, Deputy Attorney General Ashley Hokenson alleged that “[f]or years, our office has received concerned reports about crisis pregnancy centers… engaging in fraudulent and misleading conduct.” She added that “our office has received complaints that [pro-life pregnancy centers] have used deception to physically divert pregnant patients from their appointments with abortion care providers.” Both claims were repeated in her testimony in front of the House committee.
However, the Attorney General’s Office has been unable to provide any documentation of complaints to back up their allegations. In fact, in response to a FOIA request filed by the Pro-Life Action League—a co-plaintiff in Thomas More Society’s case to halt the law—the Attorney General could not produce a single complaint filed with their office for alleged violations of the Deceptive Business Practices Act by pregnancy help centers.
The response also included an unverified, two-page document, apparently from the Chicago Abortion Fund, an abortion advocacy organization, alleging eight isolated issues over an unknown period of time at what appear to be mostly—or entirely—out-of-state pregnancy help centers. The Attorney General’s Office was unable to identify the sources or the locations of these allegations. Nevertheless, this did not stop state Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, the Senate sponsor of SB 1909, from using many of these unsubstantiated claims to advocate for the passage of the bill.
Simply put, proponents have relied entirely on unsubstantiated hearsay while failing to provide any concrete evidence whatsoever of widespread “deceptive practices” by pregnancy help centers—whether it be in the form of verified complaints or successful prosecutions.
Under the guise of reacting to “misleading” information and “deceptive practices” across Illinois, the Act enshrines into law the Attorney General’s animus toward pro-life speech.
Discrimination and animus
The Attorney General—the chief government official determining when pregnancy help ministries run afoul of the law—has made it abundantly clear he does not view pregnancy help centers as legitimate health care resources for pregnant women in need.
The Attorney General’s press release celebrating SB 1909’s passage expressly adopted language describing pro-life pregnancy help centers as “fake clinics” and “so-called clinics.” The press release incorporated a quote from the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Costa Howard: “These fake clinics were set up specifically to deceive patients who are seeking reproductive healthcare.” The press release also repeated the talking point that pregnancy help centers “provide misleading information overstating the risks associated with abortion.”
The Attorney General’s FOIA response also revealed an email from an Attorney General staffer to a stakeholder saying SB 1909 was not intended to restrict “legitimate medical providers.”
In doing so, the Attorney General has expressed wholesale prejudice and blanket hostility towards pro-life pregnancy care centers.
In addition to prejudicial statements by proponents, the new law flagrantly violates pregnancy care ministries’ right to equal protection under the law by singling them out for disparate treatment—while entirely ignoring deceptive practices on the part of abortion clinics. By redefining and targeting pregnancy help ministries with broad and vague language, the Act paves the way for discriminatory enforcement of the state’s consumer fraud statute based on the Attorney General’s expressed hostility to the pro-life viewpoint.
The Act’s proponents, in committee hearings and floor debates, frequently claimed pro-life pregnancy care centers are “unlicensed”—as a pretext for the legislation. This claim relied on a crucial equivocation, as revealed in a back-and-forth between Rep. Hauter—a licensed medical doctor—and Rep. Costa Howard during the House floor debate:
Rep. Hauter: “Medical providers are licensed at pregnancy care centers as well. And they are… subject to medical malpractice laws just as they would be in abortion clinic.”
Rep. Costa Howard: “[I]f they're operating, if they're working in a clinic… they are not licensed and they're not providing care.
Rep. Hauter: All medical professionals in both abortion and pregnancy centers are licensed and subject to medical malpractice laws… [P]regnancy centers are not licensed. And neither are abortion clinics. Abortion clinics are not licensed. But… [t]he providers are subject to both medical malpractice laws and actions on their license.
Both abortion facilities and pro-life pregnancy care centers are not licensed as entities, but the medical professionals in each are subject to malpractice and professional regulations. Despite this, pro-life pregnancy care centers have been falsely portrayed as outliers under the state’s medical licensing scheme—and singled out for unequal treatment under the law.
Defending Illinois’ pregnancy help ministries
With Illinois’ anti-pregnancy help ministry law signed and effective immediately, the free speech and religious exercise rights of pro-life pregnancy help centers and sidewalk counselors are at risk. Illinois’ pregnancy help ministries are now vulnerable to $50,000 fines per violation, discriminatory enforcement, and financially ruinous litigation—simply because they do not provide abortions or “emergency contraceptives.”
Thomas More Society is committed to protecting the critical First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of pro-life pregnancy help ministries across the state and has filed suit to halt the enforcement of the “Deceptive Practices of Limited Services Pregnancy Centers Act.”
Read the full Complaint, seeking a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction, in NIFLA, et al. v. Kwame Raoul.