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Supreme Court Sides With Pregnancy Centers in Free Speech Case

California law had required centers to provide information about abortion

Abortion opponents demonstrate outside the Supreme Court on Monday, a day before it overturned a California law that required pregnancy centers to provide information about free or low-cost abortions offered under state programs. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Abortion opponents demonstrate outside the Supreme Court on Monday, a day before it overturned a California law that required pregnancy centers to provide information about free or low-cost abortions offered under state programs. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against a California law that required medical centers that primarily serve pregnant women to inform patients about free or low-cost abortions under state health care programs — a decision that some lawmakers warned could cause problems for similar health and safety laws.

In a 5-4 opinion, the court’s five conservative justices sided with the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates and other centers with religious affiliations in the case that pitted free speech against regulations that require disclosure of health laws.

Those centers argued that the California requirement violated their First Amendment rights, in part because it required them to deliver a message contrary to their own beliefs about abortion.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, found that the state law likely violated the First Amendment when it came to licensed clinics because it compelled the centers to speak a particular message. And the opinion fully struck down the law for unlicensed medical centers, ruling that it imposed a government-scripted disclosure that was disconnected from the state’s interest.

Thomas wrote that California could inform women itself with a public-information campaign, post the information on public property near the centers, or try a more effective advertising campaign. “Either way, California cannot co-opt the licensed facilities to deliver its message for it,” he wrote.

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Some members of Congress had warned the justices in a brief that federal regulations to protect consumers, workers and patients could be swept away if the Supreme Court sides with crisis pregnancy centers.

In a dissent read from the bench, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the decision will create “serious problems” because it allowed judges too great an authority to invalidate legislative decisions about what professionals must disclose for health or safety reasons. He also said it would invite litigation in those areas.

“What about laws requiring hospitals to talk about vaccines or seat belts, laws requiring landlords to tell tenants about garbage disposal rules, laws regulating securities or consumer products, laws requiring professionals, doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, to disclose information to their clients?” Breyer said from the bench.

Liberal groups and women’s health advocates said the decision will take information away from women when they are making important choices.

“Low-income women and women of color, who already face unacceptable barriers to high-quality care, are specifically targeted by these centers and will suffer the most from the Supreme Court’s actions today,” Shilpa Phadke, vice president of the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress, said in a news release.

“By siding with fake health care centers, the Court has made public health second to far-right political views,” Phadke said. “Language from today’s ruling appears to be an assist from the bench to the Trump administration and anti-choice politicians across the country who seek to restrict the speech of legitimate doctors while empowering fake medicine.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as conservative religious and anti-abortion groups, lauded the decision. The United States, which argued in the case, sided with the licensed pregnancy centers.

“Speakers should not be forced by their government to promote a message with which they disagree, and pro-life pregnancy centers in California should not be forced to advertise abortion and undermine the very reason they exist,” Sessions said in a news release. “This Department will continue to vigorously defend the freedom of all Americans to speak peacefully in accord with their deeply held beliefs and conscience.”

Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, also said the advertising of abortion runs against the centers’ mission. “The government has no business compelling these centers to work against their life-affirming mission, violating their first amendment right to free speech,” she said.

The case is National Institute of Family and Life Advocates et al. v. Xavier Becerra et al., Docket No. 16-1140.

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