More than 100 witnesses signed up to testify March 5 on a contentious state Senate bill that would legally force pro-life pregnancy centers to make a disclaimer stating they are not required to provide medically accurate information to clients.

The Maryland Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Maryland Catholic bishops, opposes Senate Bill 690, and during the hearing, Nancy Paltell, the MCC's associate director of respect for life, made a statement asking legislators to consider the ramifications of a bill that discourages women from seeking help at non-profit pregnancy centers.

"Senate Bill 690, if enacted, will harm women," she said, adding that Maryland pregnancy centers serve more than 30,000 women annually.

The bill is based on an investigative report produced by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, a political organization that advocates abortion. NARAL investigators said during their 11 visits, pregnancy centers gave them factually incorrect information about abortion, and they were vague about their medical services and pro-life mission. The bill targets about 42 pro-life pregnancy centers that do not provide abortions or referrals for abortions in Maryland.

State Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Democrat representing Montgomery County, introduced the bill to legislators stating the volunteer investigators "were told a lot of factually inaccurate information that is disconcerting." State Sens. Jennie Forehand and Jamin Raskin, Democrats from Montgomery County, also sponsored the bill.

Jenny Dixon, executive director of Care Net Pregnancy Center of Frederick, said all the information they provide is "deemed medically accurate." The 1,100 Care Net centers in the United States and Canada adhere to strict standards, including an on-site visit by a national consultant, she said.

"We are not there to make a decision for them," Dixon said.

State Sen. Barry Glassman, a Republican from Harford County, asked the panel of mostly NARAL volunteers how many complaints they received from actual clients about the disputed pregnancy centers.

Ariana Kelly, executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, responded saying they received about a dozen phone calls, and they did not receive more because they are a political action group, not a medical provider.

Glassman then asked if NARAL volunteers thought the 11 pregnancy centers and 22 investigative visits were an accurate portrayal of the 30,000 women who attend non-profit pregnancy centers annually.

Kelly responded saying the report was primarily an investigation.

Kim Daniels, an attorney with the Thomas More Law Center, testified on behalf of the pregnancy centers saying the investigation would not hold up to legal review, because the evidence does not rise to the level of intimidation.

Daniels said the bill would violate the First Amendment's protection of free speech.

If enacted, the bill would be unconstitutional under the amendment's strict scrutiny test because it only regulates pregnancy centers that do not provide abortions, and it compels these centers to deliver a "government-crafted message regarding the nature and accuracy of their services," she said.

Daniels added that the disclaimer pregnancy centers would make, stating the center is not required to provide medically accurate information to clients, is a false statement.

"As others will testify, limited service pregnancy centers are required by their internal guidelines and ethical rules, and potentially Maryland law, to provide factually accurate medical information to clients..." she said. "The government can have no interest in false speech."

State Sen. Delores Goodwin Kelley, a Democrat from Baltimore County, said Daniels testimony did not speak to the moral objections NARAL raised, but it provided a legal "road map," for legislators.

"What we need to do is have all the pregnancy centers describe very clearly their services," she said.

But Andrea Brown, a former pro-life pregnancy center client, testified saying the centers clearly outlined their services to her.

"I was informed directly on the phone that they did not provide abortions ... they let me talk and sort out my own fears," she said.

Jenni Vansant, another former pro-life pregnancy center client, said she felt "safe and secure," in the pregnancy center.

"So many lives have been saved by the options that these centers provide," she said.