Life
April 27, 2023

Thomas More Society’s Peter Breen Testifies Against Illinois Bill Targeting Pro-Life Pregnancy Help Centers

Thomas More Society’s Peter Breen Testifies Against Illinois Bill Targeting Pro-Life Pregnancy Help Centers

April 27, 2023
By
Joe Barnas
Life
April 27, 2023

Thomas More Society’s Peter Breen Testifies Against Illinois Bill Targeting Pro-Life Pregnancy Help Centers

Lawmakers in Springfield have set their sights on the life-saving work of pregnancy help centers and sidewalk counselors across Illinois. Senate Bill 1909 targets pregnancy help ministries, which provide access to vital women’s pregnancy resources across the state, simply because they do not provide abortion services or emergency contraception.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has recently endorsed the measure. “I will sign it,” Gov. Pritzker said on April 26, when asked whether he supports the bill.

Thomas More Society’s Peter Breen appeared before the Illinois House Health Care Availability & Accessibility Committee on April 25 to give testimony in opposition to SB 1909, sponsored by state Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, and state Rep. Terra Costa Howard, D-Glen Ellyn.

Breen testified that SB 1909 flagrantly “violates the First Amendment rights of pro-life organizations and individuals in Illinois, by declaring protected speech a ‘deceptive business practice.’” Supporters of SB 1909 claim that pregnancy help ministries are engaging in deception in order to prevent individuals from accessing abortion or emergency contraception, whether through advertising, soliciting, or otherwise inducing women to enter pregnancy help centers, instead of abortion providers.

The bill seeks to label broad forms of protected speech as “deceptive business practices” and would selectively place pregnancy help ministries under the Attorney General’s microscope. Moreover, the bill singles out pregnancy help ministries for heightened scrutiny, without evidence, while ignoring rampant deceptive practices among abortion providers.

Where is the evidence?

Importantly, SB 1909 is not just another bill in the Illinois General Assembly, but an initiative of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office—introduced at the behest of pro-abortion Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. If the Attorney General believes it is necessary to amend state law to single out pregnancy help centers, where is the onslaught of complaints and cases against pregnancy help centers across Illinois?

Despite what advocates of SB 1909 claim, the Attorney General’s Office couldn’t provide hard evidence that pregnancy help centers engage in so-called “deceptive practices.” According to FOIA documents obtained from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office by the Pro-Life Action League, a long-time client of the Thomas More Society, “the Attorney General has received zero complaints from members of the public against an Illinois Pregnancy Help Center for alleged violations of the Deceptive Business Practices Act,” Breen said.

The FOIA request sought all complaints against pregnancy help centers in Illinois over the past 10 years. These so-called “deceptive business practices” are shown to be unfounded and, thus far, nothing more than anecdote and hearsay. “You don’t have any proof coming back from the pregnancy care centers, proof of them doing something wrong?” state Rep. Kevin Schmidt, R-Millstadt, a licensed chiropractic physician, asked during the committee hearing. “We don’t make laws based on stories, we need sound proof if we’re going to make a law like this,” he added.  

Simply put, state officials have not had cause to take legal action against pregnancy help centers, using the tools of the law already available. Instead, if SB 1909 is passed and signed into law, lawmakers would open the door to illegally targeting the First Amendment rights of pregnancy help ministries, with vague legal language ripe for abusive and discriminatory enforcement.

Stifling free speech

The text of the bill is accompanied by a “legislative intent” section that intends to clarify the purposes of the bill. In this section, examples are given of what may constitute actionable “misinformation”:

The advertisements and information given by these organizations 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.


Not only are these not facts, “these three items are hotly disputed between pro-life and pro-choice advocates,” Breen said, and the “government 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 added that the “government has no authority to reach into a pregnancy help center, on its own private property, and interfere with that center’s quiet caring advocacy to pregnant women.” Whether it is protected speech on a sidewalk or on the private property of the pregnancy help center,  SB 1909 would stifle the free speech and religious exercise rights of pro-life Illinoisans.

“Case-by-case basis”

Questions and answers during the April 25 committee hearing revealed how the bill’s intentionally vague language would threaten the daily work of pregnancy help ministries and leave them vulnerable to legal harassment from state officials.

State Rep. Jackie Haas, R-Kankakee, a licensed social worker and CEO of a community mental health center, asked Deputy Attorney General for Policy Ashley Hokenson—who testified in support of SB 1909—to clarify the meaning of several relevant points in the bill. However, Hokenson refused to give any further details as to how the Attorney General’s Office plans to enforce SB 1909.

For example, the Attorney General’s Office is leaving open the possibility that the bill compels speech and pregnancy help ministries could be prosecuted for not sharing highly contentious pro-abortion talking points:  

REP. JACKIE HAAS: From the the legislative intent of this bill, this bill is specifically intended to regulate what organizations can say about the risks associated with abortion, correct?

HOKENSON: We would evaluate each thing on a case-by-case basis.

[…]

REP. HAAS: Again, this bill requires organizations discussing the risks of abortion to tell women that the risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than the risk of death associated with abortion, correct

HOKENSON: We would evaluate each thing on a case-by-case basis.

REP. HAAS: And not providing this information is considered concealing to material fact, correct?

HOKENSON: We would evaluate each one on a case-by-case basis.


Moreover, the Attorney General’s Office also seemed to leave open the possibility that pregnancy help ministries could be prosecuted for protected speech—for pro-life advocacy:

REP. HAAS: So to be clear, this would prohibit a covered organization from claiming that a woman who has an abortion has a higher risk of death than a woman who gives birth, correct?

HOKENSON: We would evaluate each on a case-by-case basis.


Hokenson was also asked if SB 1909 could prohibit pregnancy help ministries from providing critical information about abortion pill reversal, and left open that possibility:

REP. HAAS: Would it be a violation to tell a woman that the abortion pill reversal is possible?

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?

HOKENSON: We would evaluate each case on a case-by-case basis.


The exchange ultimately revealed that the Attorney General’s Office had no intention of providing concrete guidance as to what may constitute “material fact” in the bill:

REP. HAAS: How is a covered organization supposed to know what is or is not material fact?

HOKENSON: We would evaluate each on a case-by-case basis.

REP. HAAS: Do you have any other examples of misrepresentations or material facts?

[…]

HOKENSON: Again, it would be on a case-by-case basis.


If “material fact” is determined on a “case-by-case basis,” then the question is left to the whims of the Attorney General’s Office, and pregnancy help ministries would have no way to know if they run afoul of the law in their everyday ministry.

“[Y]ou haven’t been able to give us any complaints, actions, evidence, incidents, successful prosecutions, any assertion that supports your assertion that there is deceptive practices,” state Rep. Bill Hauter, R-Morton, a licensed medical doctor, said during the hearing. “This does not clarify anything… you would not give us one example, hypothetical incident that we could say, is a material fact, that you would make a judgment on.”

Animus

Lacking evidence of deceptive practices on the part of pregnancy help centers, advocates of SB 1909 betray that their hostility towards pregnancy help ministries is based on their pro-life mission and services.

While pregnancy help centers provide critical women’s pregnancy resources to some of the most vulnerable and underprivileged populations in Illinois, this did not deter some lawmakers on the committee from making denigrating remarks about pregnancy help ministries.

SB 1909’s sponsor, Rep. Costa Howard, claimed that while other healthcare facilities in the state are subject to malpractice regulations, “these people [pregnancy help centers] are nothing,” and that “there is no regulation at all over anything having to do with these centers.” However, earlier in the hearing, Breen confirmed that all pregnancy help centers in the state of Illinois that provide ultrasounds have licensed personnel providing that service.

Rep. Costa Howard concluded the committee debate on the bill by saying, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, don’t you worry about it.” It was Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the secret police under Joseph Stalin, who famously said, “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.”

The Illinois House Health Care Availability & Accessibility Committee voted 5-3 to advance SB 1909 to the House floor.

If SB 1909 is passed and signed into law, Thomas More Society will file suit to stop its enforcement and protect the First Amendment rights of pregnancy help ministries in Illinois.


Read Peter Breen’s full testimony here.