California Abortion Ruling Puts Other States' Laws in Doubt

Supreme Court justices on Tuesday sided with anti-abortion groups in a case over what information crisis pregnancy centers have to give patients.

Supreme Court
Anti-abortion and abortion rights advocates demonstrating in front of the Supreme Court this week.
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Tuesday that a California law that requires crisis pregnancy centers -- which are often run by anti-abortion groups -- to inform women of their rights to an abortion is “presumptively unconstitutional.”  

California's Reproductive FACT Act, passed in 2015, mandated those centers to post signage in a “conspicuous location” alerting women that the state offers all women “public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access” to services for contraception, abortion and prenatal care. The Supreme Court struck down that part of the law. 

The case, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates vs. Becerra, came about when religious liberty groups objected to the law. They argued that forcing these centers to advertise abortion services violated their freedom of speech and placed an undue burden on their operations.

Anti-abortion groups celebrated the ruling, saying it allows them to continue to do the work they want without violating their moral beliefs against abortion. 

"Today is a victory for more than just the dedicated volunteers who staff pregnancy care centers; it is also a victory for the thousands of women who go to the centers seeking life-affirming care and support,” said Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, in a statement.

Reproductive rights advocates, however, say that the case didn’t deal with the heart of the issue: that many crisis pregnancy centers mislead women about their health-care options. 

“It’s been difficult to establish laws and rules on them so that unsuspecting patients don’t walk in the door expecting it to be a women’s health center. They look like health centers and have similar names, but many of them provide medically inaccurate information. It just delays the care they really need,” says Elizabeth Nash, a state policy expert for the Guttmacher Institute, which studies and advocates for reproductive health. 

The ruling throws similar laws in Hawaii and Illinois into doubt. Both states require crisis pregnancy centers to notify women that they have options for comprehensive health-care services beyond what they provide.

The ruling could also have the unintended consequence of bringing down laws typically backed by anti-abortion groups that require women seeking abortions to view ultrasounds or learn about the growth of their fetus.

At the local level, Austin and Baltimore both had similar ordinances struck down in recent years. King County, Wash., New York City and San Francisco still have laws regulating crisis pregnancy centers. It’s unclear if they will be challenged or abandoned.

Reproductive health experts say they will continue to work with communities to make sure women understand the difference between crisis pregnancy centers and full-service women’s health clinics. 

“We’re going to continue to develop strategies to let women know the sort of services these clinics do and don’t provide,” says Heather Shumaker, senior counsel for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center. 

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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