To no one’s surprise, Cambridge has jumped on the anti-life bandwagon. Last week, the Cambridge City Council held an Ordinance Committee hearing to discuss banning pro-life pregnancy resource centers (PRCs) from Cambridge. Through local advocates and new allies, MFI pushed back.
In the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned, Cambridge city councilors felt it necessary to propose an ordinance punishing pro-life PRCs, even though Cambridge itself currently has no PRCs within its borders. This piece of legislative virtue-signaling would go even further than the anti-PRC “deceptive practices” policies we have seen in other cities. Cambridge’s proposed ordinance not only includes the vague language prohibiting “deceptive practices” by PRCs, but also places an outright ban on any PRCs opening in Cambridge. It would also force all pregnancy centers to refer for, or provide, abortions. And to make its anti-life intent unmistakably clear, the “Finding of Facts” section of the proposed ordinance states that PRCs that “seek to persuade people against having an abortion” engage in a “practice [that] is both deceptive and unwanted.” Talk about viewpoint discrimination! For such a well-educated city, their ignorance of the law, not to mention intolerance and disrespect for free speech rights, is startling.
MFI has been tracking similar ordinances in Easthampton, Worcester, and a number of other towns. When we saw that this ordinance was scheduled for a public hearing in Cambridge, we immediately contacted local pro-life advocates and urged them to testify against it. We also reached out to Harvard Law School’s Students for Life chapter to see if they would be willing to bring some local legal firepower to bear against the ordinance. Many pro-life advocates, two Harvard Law students, and even a Harvard undergrad student, showed up in person and via Zoom to testify. No one presented in support of the ordinance.
The testimony of pro-life advocates was compelling. Members of the Boston Center for Pregnancy Choices, a Boston-based PRC, attended and shared their stories. One spoke of her regrets from having an abortion early in life and stated that if there had been a PRC in her area to offer her the support she needed, she likely would have chosen life. Another talked about how her young mother was pressured to choose abortion but by the grace of God chose to have her baby. Yet another talked about how she was sex-trafficked when she was younger and how pro-abortion organizations like Planned Parenthood cover up sex trafficking.
The Harvard Law students used their budding legal expertise to explain the serious legal defects in the proposed ordinance. They made clear that it would violate PRCs’ First Amendment free speech rights in numerous ways by targeting the content of their speech, subjecting them to vague enforcement standards that “chill” their speech, and forcing them to endorse abortion to their clientele. One student eloquently concluded his remarks by stating, “This ordinance takes away valuable resources from pregnant women. This is an ordinance born out of anger, not of compassion. Please, choose compassion.”
But the city council didn’t have to take the Harvard students’ word for it; the ordinance was so legally flawed that Cambridge’s own city attorney told the council that it would be dead on arrival if it were ever challenged in court. This, combined with the passionate and effective testimony of the advocates and law students, forced the city council to reconsider.
It was clear that the councilors desperately wanted to pass the ordinance. Councilor Marc McGovern defended Planned Parenthood, saying he found it “a little ironic” that advocates had complained about PRCs being misrepresented because he denied the claim that Planned Parenthood has covered up sex trafficking (a well-documented fact for which there is video evidence). Councilor Patricia Nolan stated that the “idea” of PRCs sounds great, but that “the reality is completely different.” She said she was “infuriated about the lies about Planned Parenthood” and asserted that “abortion care is an incredibly important part of healthcare.” Multiple councilors referred to recent comments by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Attorney General Maura Healey as support for their dogmatic belief that PRCs harm women.
Yet, despite their pro-abortion fervor, the councilors ultimately decided to table the ordinance and continue the public hearing to a later date. They directed the city attorney to review and revise the ordinance to bring it into compliance with the First Amendment. It is unclear how she will do so, but it is likely that the council will try to pass a pared-down ordinance that only contains the “deceptive practices” language we have seen in other legislation. But as even the city attorney acknowledged, there are still grave legal issues with this vague language. Whatever happens, if the revised ordinance continues to unfairly target pro-life PRCs, MFI will be there to oppose it.
MFI is grateful for the pro-life advocates who showed up to oppose the ordinance, as well as the new allies it found among students at Harvard and Harvard Law. Due to their courage, we achieved a victory in the initial stage of this fight against an anti-life ordinance in one of the most hard-left cities in the country.
For our families,
Sam Whiting, Staff Attorney