US high court cynical toward anti-abortion centers
A California law that requires Christian-based facilities that steer pregnant women away from abortion to post notices about the availability of state-subsidized abortions ran into trouble at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, with justices on the right and left indicating it may violate free speech rights.
Various justices voiced concern that the Democratic-backed 2015 law was crafted to take aim at a specific viewpoint — opposition to abortion — held by these non-profit facilities called crisis pregnancy centers.
Conservative justices sharply questioned the lawyer representing California, and even two liberal justices expressed unease with parts of the law during an hour-long argument in an appeal by these facilities of a lower court ruling upholding the statute. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority.
The crisis pregnancy centers accuse California of compelling them to advertise for abortion even though it violates their beliefs, running afoul of the guarantee of freedom of speech under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito said that even if the law looks neutral on its face, it contains so many exemptions that it appears to target only those holding anti-abortion views.
“Do you think it’s possible to infer intentional discrimination?” Alito asked Joshua Klein, California’s deputy solicitor general.
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan pressed Klein on the same concerns, wondering whether the law was applied only to “speakers whose speech we don’t much like.” Klein said the law was applied to be useful to pregnant women.
California’s Reproductive FACT Act, passed by a Democratic-led legislature and signed by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, requires centers licensed as family planning facilities to post or distribute notices that the state has programs offering free or low-cost birth control and abortion services. It also requires unlicensed facilities that may have no medical provider on staff to disclose that fact.
The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, and the wider issue of abortion rights is not at issue in the case.
Crisis pregnancy centers say they offer legitimate health services but that it is their mission to steer women with unplanned pregnancies away from abortion. California says some crisis pregnancy centers mislead women by presenting themselves as full-service reproductive healthcare facilities and the law helps ensure clients are made aware of abortion services available elsewhere.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in 2016, finding it did not discriminate based on viewpoint.