The U.S. Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote Tuesday struck down a California law that requires pregnancy crisis centers to inform patients about the availability of abortions.
The court majority, in an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the law was “content-based regulation of speech” that compelled the centers to give a message they opposed, in violation of the constitutional First Amendment right of free speech.
Under the law, Thomas wrote:
“Licensed clinics must provide a government-drafted script about the availability of state-sponsored services, as well as contact information for how to obtain them.”
Thomas said in the opinion:
“One of those services is abortion — the very practice that petitioners are devoted to opposing.”
The court overturned rulings in which a federal trial judge in San Diego and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco turned down requests by a group of pregnancy centers for a preliminary injunction blocking the law.
The court sent the case back to the lower courts for further proceedings, which would presumably be an injunction against the law.
Pregnancy crisis clinics are centers that provide pregnancy-related services but do not offer abortions or emergency contraception or referrals for such services.
The state law was called the Reproductive FACT (Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency) Act and its stated purpose was to assure that “all California women, regardless of income…have access to reproductive health services.”
It required state-licensed medical clinics providing pregnancy-related services to post notices telling patients that California has free and low-cost programs that offer comprehensive family planning services, including contraception, prenatal care and abortion.
Another part of the law required unlicensed clinics to disclose that they lacked licenses to provide medical care. That part of the law was also overturned by the high court.
The law was challenged by the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates and one licensed and one unlicensed center.
In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, disputed the concept that the notices intruded on First Amendment rights more than other types of government regulation.
Breyer said the majority opinion appeared to conflict with a 1992 decision in which the court upheld a Pennsylvania law requiring doctors to give potential abortion patients information about fetal development, childbirth and the availability of adoption.
“If a state can lawfully require a doctor to tell a woman seeking an abortion about adoption services, why should it not be able, as here, to require a medical counselor to tell a woman seeking prenatal care or other reproductive healthcare about childbirth and abortion services?”
Breyer said the majority’s reasoning could “radically change prior law” by inviting free-speech challenges to accepted rules such as those requiring hospitals to tell new parents about child car seats and landlords to tell tenants about garbage disposal procedures.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office defended the law, said it had required “neutral, fact-based information” about healthcare options.
Becerra said in a statement:
“When it comes to making their health decisions, all California women — regardless of their economic background or zip code — deserve access to critical and non-biased information to make their own informed decisions.”
NARAL Pro-Choice America President Elyse Hogue said:
“Today, the Supreme Court turned its back on women and condoned the deceptive tactics used by fake women’s health centers.”
Washington, D.C.-based NARAL was formerly called the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
NIFLA, based in Fredericksburg, Va., said on its website today that it had:
“…achieved a victory for pro-life free speech…resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the coercive law that forced pro-life pregnancy centers and their staff and volunteers to advertise tax-funded abortions.”