Politics & Government

Do pregnancy centers run by abortion foes have to provide information about abortion?

Blayne Wittig, executive director of Options for Women of California, left, a center in Concord, Calif., Debbie Whittaker, nurse manager, center, and Christine Vatuone, president and CEO of Informed Choices, talk at Informed Choices, a crisis pregnancy center in Grilroy, Calif.
Blayne Wittig, executive director of Options for Women of California, left, a center in Concord, Calif., Debbie Whittaker, nurse manager, center, and Christine Vatuone, president and CEO of Informed Choices, talk at Informed Choices, a crisis pregnancy center in Grilroy, Calif. AP

About 200 California crisis pregnancy centers run by abortion opponents now offer free goods and services to pregnant women — and state law says they also have to tell them information about abortions.

We shouldn’t have to do that, say center officials.

It’ll be up to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide, and Tuesday, the court will hear oral arguments from both sides.

The centers are often affiliated with religious-affiliated groups. California in 2015 enacted a law requiring the centers to post signs in waiting rooms that inform clients of other centers that offer “immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services, prenatal care, and abortion, for eligible women.”

The state also requires such centers that aren’t medically licensed to inform clients of that fact.

Thomas Glessner, president of National Institutes of Family and Life Advocates, which filed the lawsuit against California, said the law forces its centers to become “abortion referral agencies.” NIFLA has ties to 1,500 such centers nationwide.

“We’re talking about nonprofit, private speakers who want to give a message that is deeply moral,” said Denise Harle, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which defends medical staff working in such centers and supports NIFLA in the case. “For them to point the way to free and low-cost abortions deeply burdens their conscience.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra countered that it’s critical that pregnant women, faced with time-sensitive decisions about their health, receive accurate information.

“Information is power and all women must have access to factual information regarding their health care,” said Becerra.

Legal experts say the issue before the court is that of free speech, specifically what a nonprofit can be compelled to inform clients through signage and notices. Private speech is more protected than the speech of commercial businesses. Where the nonprofit pregnancy resource centers fall between those categories is what’s being debated.

Adam Liptak, The Times’ Supreme Court reporter, breaks down the arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which could reverse constitutional standards on abortion.

Commercial speech, such as advertisements, can be banned for being false or misleading. Private speech cannot be banned based on its accuracy.

Brianne Gorod, chief counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center, a progressive group that filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of California, compared the signage to posters people see in work break rooms, informing them of their right to a safe workplace. She said overturning the law could “wreak havoc” with public disclosure laws.

“These are simple notices, with neutral, factual information,” Gorod said.

The law does not prevent the centers from discouraging women from seeking abortions, as long as they post the required information, Gorod said.

Harle disagreed with that assessment, saying the centers are nonprofits and not commercial businesses,. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the California law in October 2016, classified notices as “professional speech,” which Harle derided as a term with no legal basis.

Similar laws — either requiring certain notices in the case of abortion rights or anti-abortion interests — exist around the country.

Eighteen states mandate some sort of counseling before a woman can receive an abortion, either on the purported link between abortion and breast cancer, the ability of a fetus to feel pain or long-term mental health consequences to the mother.

A law in Baltimore that required pregnancy counselors opposed to abortion to post signs with the government’s chosen message about abortion, even on church property, was struck down by a federal court in 2016.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby

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