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Anti-abortion pregnancy centers sue Vermont

The lobby of Branches Pregnancy Resource Center, a so-called "crisis pregnancy center" in Brattleboro.
Branches Pregnancy Resource Center
The lobby of Branches Pregnancy Resource Center, a so-called "crisis pregnancy center" in Brattleboro.

On its website, the Branches Pregnancy Resource Center in Brattleboro describes itself as a resource for people who are pregnant and want to know their options.

Branches, along with a similar center in Williston called Aspire Now, is suing the state over a new law that Gov. Phil Scott signed in May. An affiliated anti-abortion organization, the National Institute for Family and Life Advocates, is also part of the suit.

The plaintiffs will be represented by lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom.

The law in question, S.37, made headlines as a "reproductive shield law" — it offers protections for doctors who provide abortions or gender-affirming health care. It also subjects so-called crisis pregnancy centers to the state's existing consumer protection regulations, which bar false and deceptive advertising. This provision unconstitutionally limits the centers' ability to advertise their services, said Julia Payne, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom.

"If pregnancy centers advertise their services in a way that Vermont's pro-abortion Attorney General considers misleading, then the centers could face fines of up to $10,000," Payne told Vermont Public.

In an email, Attorney General Charity Clark said her office has not yet been served with the complaint. "However, I am familiar with this law," Clark said. "The law prohibits lying and deception in the marketplace. Who would be against that? I look forward to defending this lawsuit for Vermont.”

In the suit, the plaintiffs also call into question the law's provision that only licensed health care providers can provide health care services, information and counselling. Payne argued that this limits the ability of non-medical centers like Branches to provide "general pregnancy information, drug store pregnancy tests or counselling about pregnancy options."

The Alliance Defending Freedom is the same organization that challenged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's longstanding approval of the abortion medication mifepristone.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.

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