California crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) must tell patients about the availability of birth control and abortion services, a federal judge said Tuesday, rejecting a court motion to temporarily block a state disclosure law.
Judge John A. Houston with the Southern District Court of California held that the “state clearly has a legitimate interest in ensuring pregnant woman are fully advised of their rights and treatment options when making reproductive health care decisions and the required disclosure is undeniably rationally related to that interest.”
Attorneys for two Southern California CPCs and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates had asked the judge to temporarily block the state’s Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, which went into effect January 1. The act, they argued in court filings, violated their clients’ freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, forcing the centers “to recite government messages promoting abortion.”
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The lawsuit is the fourth challenge to the new law, which regulates centers “whose primary purpose is providing pregnancy-related services,” including CPCs, requiring the facilities to post a short public notice about access to abortion and birth control. Unlicensed centers are required to post a notice that they are not licensed medical facilities.
Concerns over CPCs dispensing misinformation to vulnerable patients prompted the law, passed last year by California’s Democratic-majority legislature. A recent California undercover investigation found that CPCs, generally staffed by anti-choice activists, discourage patients from having abortions by routinely lying to women about their options. Other investigations found that CPCs convince women to remain pregnant with false promises of financial aid and housing.
With Tuesday’s decision, three federal district courts and one state court have refused to block the law ahead of a trial.
“This law requires licensed medical centers, and also non-profit unlicensed centers, all of which provide free help to pregnant women, to recite a government message under threat of severe penalties, and is a clear violation of constitutionally protected First Amendment freedoms,” Bowman said in an email statement sent Tuesday to Rewire. “Courts around the country have already rightly struck down these types of laws.”
Public information laws about reproductive health have been met with mixed success in court. Appellate courts in recent years have struck down ordinances in New York City and Baltimore that required patients to be informed about reproductive health services. A San Francisco ordinance requiring pregnancy-related centers to tell the truth in advertisements survived a federal court challenge last year.
Operators of CPCs have said they will close down or refuse to comply with what they describe as a “bully bill.”
“I will not post that notice in our clinic,” Scott Scharpen, a party to one of four challenges to the law, said in a statement late last year. “I would rather close the clinic than post that notice. Now, by law, we are required to provide referral information to a woman for services that we find morally and ethically objectionable, namely abortion.”
Josh McClure, the executive director of East County Pregnancy Care Clinic, recently told the New York Times he won’t comply.
“I don’t want to put up a sign telling you where you can go for an abortion,” said McClure, whose clinic is also a plaintiff. “The sign is not up here now because it’s unconstitutional.”
Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) in October, the Reproductive FACT Act, or AB 775, was enacted to regulate pregnancy-related centers, including the nearly 350 CPCs that operate in the Golden State, according to a directory by the CPC umbrella group Heartbeat International.
Groups that fail to comply will face civil penalties up to $1,000.
Backers of AB 775 cited a recent undercover report by NARAL Pro-Choice California that found CPCs routinely lie about the physical and psychological risks of ending a pregnancy and delay a patient until abortion is no longer an option.
Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, said in an emailed statement that “California women deserve to get accurate information about reproductive health options free of interference, coercion or shame. It tells you all you need to know about Alliance Defending Freedom’s anti-choice agenda that they are suing to keep basic healthcare information from women.”
Federal judges in the eastern and northern districts of California have rejected motions to block the law, as Rewire reported in December.
Judge Kimberly Mueller of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District wrote in a 59-page decision that “enjoining the act would interfere with the public interest regarding the health of state residents.”
Judge Jeffrey S. White in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District held that CPCs engage in commercial or professional speech, which is subject to a lower degree of scrutiny than individual speech.
The four challenges to the law now await court hearings.