Catholic Sentinel photo
Terry Brand of Birthright in Salem: Her peers in Washington are facing legislation that could endanger their existence.
Catholic Sentinel photo
Terry Brand of Birthright in Salem: Her peers in Washington are facing legislation that could endanger their existence.
The Washington State Catholic Conference and other pro-life groups are fighting proposed legislation they say compromises the rights of pregnancy resource centers in their state.  

The legislative battle echoes one that took place in Oregon four years ago and that ended in the favor of the pro-life projects.

NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have teamed up to propose legislation in Olympia to force the centers to post signs saying that women can obtain neither abortions nor referrals at the site. House Bill 1366 also would make it easier for a woman to sue one of the centers if she feels she was misled.

"It is a thinly veiled attempt to silence alternatives to abortion clinics," says a statement from the bill's opponents, a group that includes the Catholic dioceses in the state.

Though the church does not operate pregnancy resource centers, Catholics support the donation-run projects. In addition, Catholic Charities provides some help to pregnant women.

"We have been saying: if we are truly talking about choice, shouldn't a woman have a choice to go to one of these centers," says Dominican Sister Sharon Park, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference. "They provide millions of dollars in services at no cost to the state."

Sister Sharon says the bill fails the test of equal treatment. It would not require abortion clinics to declare what they do and don't do and would not create new reasons for women to sue abortion providers.

The bill, and its companion legislation in the Senate, have so far stayed in committee. Should it emerge, it has a strong chance of passing because both chambers of the Washington Legislature are controlled by Democrats and Gov. Christine Gregoire has backed abortion rights vigorously in the past.

Abortion rights groups tried a version of the law last year in Washington state, but constitutional questions arose. Sponsors say they have fixed the problems this time. The coalition argues that the pro-life centers "infringe on patients' rights, and limit women's health care options."

Many pro-life centers offer pregnancy tests and ultrasound images of the developing child. Seeing those pictures has steered many women from abortion, say resource center staff.  

Catholics familiar with the centers know them as places where kindly volunteers knit blankets and provide a listening ear to pregnant women. It seems odd to many that such benign places would be a target of political attack.

Testimony in packed committee rooms has come from women grateful for the help they received and a few who felt bamboozled.

"We are pretty open with what we do and don't do," says Terry Brand, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Stayton and director of Birthright of Salem. "There would not be any question with where we stand."

Birthright offers counseling, support, supplies and pregnancy tests.

Dorothy Benoit, a regional consultant for Birthright in the Pacific Northwest, says similar bills have been appearing around the country. Birthright does not get involved in political matters, but focuses on serving women and children, she explains.

In 2007, a bill in the Oregon Legislature would have required an investigation of organizations like Birthright, which has offices in four Oregon cities. That proposed legislation stalled in committee.

Across the country in Baltimore, the city had passed a similar law, but a federal court struck it down last month as a form of discrimination. The Constitution prohibits singling out one group for unequal treatment based on beliefs.