Legislators, Advocates Prepare Ahead of Abortion Case

California law on crisis pregnancy centers stirs free speech debate

Supporters and opponents of abortion rights rally outside the Supreme Court in June 2016. The fight over abortion restrictions will likely be a major flashpoint in appropriations debates and on the campaign trail. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Supporters and opponents of abortion rights rally outside the Supreme Court in June 2016. The fight over abortion restrictions will likely be a major flashpoint in appropriations debates and on the campaign trail. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 5, 2018 at 5:00am

Lawmakers and advocacy groups are readying themselves for a highly anticipated U.S. Supreme Court case that will determine whether a California law violates free speech for so-called crisis pregnancy centers.

On March 20, the nation’s highest court will begin oral arguments in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra. At issue is the constitutionality of a California state law that requires crisis pregnancy centers to post signs explaining that the state offers subsidized family planning services including abortion.

Anti-abortion groups and crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs, which are often privately funded and generally serve to counsel women against having abortions, oppose the law and allege that posting these notices about government services goes against their First Amendment rights.

“The Act unconstitutionally restricts Plaintiff Facilities’ rights of free speech, which includes the right to refrain from speaking, to choose how and when to deliver particular messages, and the right to refuse to speak a government-dictated message,” the complaint reads.

NIFLA is a nonprofit that gives legal advice to crisis pregnancy centers and is representing 135 California centers in this case. They hope to declare the law unconstitutional and are seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions against its enforcement, according to the complaint.

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Critics of these centers note that the organizations have been the subject of much controversy due to allegations of false advertising and dissemination of inaccurate information. NARAL Pro-Choice America, which supports abortion rights, recently released a report that says these centers offer false information about birth control and pose as medical clinics without an agenda.

“By locating near clinics that provide comprehensive information and services, CPCs purposefully try to confuse patients into mistakenly entering their deceitful clinics,” the report reads.

NARAL refers to CPCs as “fake women’s health centers” and believes that calling them pregnancy centers is deceptive because the centers often do not offer broad medical services.

Lawmakers’ reaction

Fourteen senators, led by California Democrats Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, as well as 85 House members, filed an amicus brief Tuesday with the Supreme Court in support of California’s law.

The brief states, “Many disclosure regulations deal with controversial matters, but that does not render them unconstitutional.”

“Our state has a strong interest in ensuring women have accurate information about how to get care and their rights under our laws,” Feinstein said. “This is no different than many federal laws that inform patients, consumers, and workers of their rights. Ensuring women have access to factual information about the law in no way violates the First Amendment.”

“Women should not only have equal access to services, but deserve the right to have all the facts they need to make informed decisions about their own health and their lives,” Harris said.

Advocates’ action

Advocacy organizations on both sides are organizing before next month’s arguments.

NARAL announced Wednesday it is leading a coalition of reproductive rights groups in a campaign called End the Lies, dedicated to educating people about these centers in certain states and the District of Columbia.

The groups’ digital and on-the-ground campaign will discuss how they believe these centers allegedly use deceptive advertising and other dishonest tactics to convince women not to have abortions.

On Tuesday, 51 reproductive rights organizations co-signed another amicus brief in support of the California law. The groups, including the Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Women’s Law Center, include stories from women who have visited the centers and had negative experiences.

The brief describes one woman’s story by saying she would not have gone to a center “if she had known that it did not provide the care she sought or employ medical professionals delivering actual medical services instead of religious counseling.”

Defenders of the centers say the case highlights an issue that reaches beyond abortion.

“The freedom of speech is a bedrock principle of our nation, enshrined in the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment,” the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Pediatricians and the Christian Medical Association said in a brief.

NIFLA has scheduled a rally in support of crisis centers in front of the Supreme Court on March 20.

“Federal courts in Maryland, New York, and Texas have ruled in favor of free speech, conscience rights, and the unborn — as did a state judge in Illinois,” NIFLA President Thomas Glessner said in a statement. “The Ninth Circuit Court became the lone exception when it ruled against NIFLA’s members’ rights to free speech and freedom of conscience, and we urge the U.S. Supreme Court to correct this error.”