By Bob Egelko
California violates freedom of speech by requiring antiabortion "crisis pregnancy centers" to tell patients that the state makes abortions available at little or no cost, a Riverside County judge has ruled, reopening debate over a law that federal courts had upheld.
The law, sponsored by Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, took effect last year. It requires all state-licensed reproductive health centers to post notices listing low-cost or free reproductive services available under state law, including abortion. The notices must also include the phone number of the county social service center.
A federal appeals court upheld the law in October 2016, saying it merely required the clinics to provide health care information that patients have a right to receive. Abortion foes have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review that ruling, but they also filed another suit in state court on behalf of a clinic in Riverside County, and won the first round this week.
By requiring a pregnancy clinic to tell its patients how they can contact an abortion provider, the state "forces the clinic to point the way to the abortion clinic and can leave patients with the belief they were referred to an abortion provider by that clinic," Superior Court Judge Gloria Trask said Monday.
The law "interferes both with the right of the clinician to speak and with the right of the patient to hear what the clinician would say in the absence of state censorship," Trask said. "The state inserts itself into the private and sensitive relationship between a woman and her physician."
Her ruling bars enforcement of the law against only one clinic, Go Mobile for Life, run by the Scharpen Foundation in the city of Temecula. A statewide ruling will follow once higher courts take up an appeal by Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is defending the law.
"Information is power, and all women should have access to the information they need when making personal health-care decisions," Becerra said in a statement announcing the appeal.
Scott Scharpen, president of the Scharpen Foundation, said that "being compelled to share information with our patients about abortion availability, which is contrary to our mission and purpose, is fundamentally wrong. Lives will be saved because of this ruling."
The lawsuit drew financial support from Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a conservative religious nonprofit. It relied on free-speech guarantees in the California Constitution, arguing that those rights were stronger than U.S. constitutional protections invoked in the federal court cases.
Crisis pregnancy centers offer free counseling and services, including pregnancy tests and ultrasound examinations, to pregnant women. The centers steer patients away from abortions, and have been known to advise women that abortion is physically and psychologically harmful.
According to a legislative staff analysis of Chiu's bill in 2015, there were at the time about 2,500 such clinics nationwide and at least 228 in California.
In her ruling, Trask said the state was entitled to tell people about the availability of abortion but must do so on its own, with television ads, billboards or sex education classes.
"This statute compels the clinic to speak words with which it profoundly disagrees when the state has numerous alternative methods of publishing its message," the judge said.
(c)2017 the San Francisco Chronicle