The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked a California law requiring clinics that counsel women against abortion to notify clients of the availability of abortions paid for by the state, ruling it violated the free speech rights of these Christian-based facilities.
The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973. While the broader issue of abortion rights was not at issue in this case, the 5-4 ruling represented a significant victory for abortion opponents who operate these kinds of clinics — called crisis pregnancy centres — around the country.
The court’s five conservative justices were in the majority in the ruling authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, with the four liberals dissenting.
The justices endorsed the argument advanced by the clinics that the Democratic-backed law in the most populous U.S. state ran afoul of the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech by forcing them to advertise for abortion in violation of their beliefs.
“California cannot co-opt the licensed facilities to deliver its message for it,” Thomas wrote in his opinion.
Crisis pregnancy centres have said they offer legitimate health services, but that it is their mission to steer women with unplanned pregnancies away from abortion.
‘Forced to advertise abortion’
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions hailed the decision.
“We are pleased that today’s decision protects Americans’ freedom of speech. Speakers should not be forced by their government to promote a message with which they disagree, and pro-life pregnancy centres in California should not be forced to advertise abortion and undermine the very reason they exist.”
There are roughly 2,700 crisis pregnancy centres in the United States, including around 200 in California, according to abortion rights advocates, vastly outnumbering abortion clinics.
California officials said some of the centres mislead women by presenting themselves as full-service reproductive health-care facilities, going so far as to resemble medical clinics, down to lab coats worn by staff.
While the ruling could make it harder for Democratic states that may be inclined to crack down on these centres to impose regulations, the court’s endorsement of the free speech argument could help abortion rights advocates challenge laws in Republican-governed states imposing burdensome requirements on abortion clinics.
The justices reversed a 2016 ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that refused to block the law because it likely did not violate free speech rights.
California’s Reproductive FACT Act, passed by a Democratic-led legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, required centres licensed by the state as family planning facilities to post or distribute notices that the state has programs offering free or low-cost birth control, prenatal care and abortion services.
The law also mandated unlicensed centres that may have no medical provider on staff to disclose that fact.