Forcing anti-abortion pregnancy crisis centers to advertise for abortion services amounts to unconstitutionally compelled speech and violates the First Amendment, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The high court reversed a decision by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had denied a request for a preliminary injunction blocking the California law from taking effect. The Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act required nonprofit facilities to tell women that they are eligible for free or low-cost “family planning” services — including birth control and abortions.
The statute also required the messages to include the phone number of a county social services office that provides the services.
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The majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by the other four conservative-leaning justices, overturned both of the law’s major regulations — one applying to licensed facilities and one governing unlicensed operations.
Thomas declared that the notice requirement is “content-based regulation of speech” and is inconsistent with the First Amendment.
“Here, for example, licensed clinics must provide a government-drafted script about the availability of state-sponsored services, as well as contact information for how to obtain them. One of those services is abortion — the very practice that petitioners are devoted to opposing,” he wrote.
“By requiring petitioners to inform women how they can obtain state-subsidized abortions — at the same time petitioners try to dissuade women from choosing that option — the licensed notice plainly ‘alters the content’ of petitioners’ speech,” he said.
The ruling was one of two big 5-4 decisions handed down by the court Tuesday in favor of conservatives. The other ruling upheld President Donald Trump’s so-called travel ban.
Justice Stephen Breyer, emphasizing the intensity of his disagreement, read his dissent on the abortion case from the bench. He argued that Tuesday’s ruling threatens a broad range of laws requiring disclosure of information to consumers.
“Thus, the majority’s view, if taken literally, could radically change prior law, perhaps placing much securities law or consumer protection law at constitutional risk, depending on how broadly its exceptions are interpreted,” he wrote.
A range of anti-abortion organizations hailed the decision.
“I know from personal experience the difference that caring, dedicated pregnancy resource center care volunteers can have and what happens when women don’t have access to that. Today’s ruling is a victory for pregnancy resource care centers and all the women who reach out to them for help in times of need,” Americans United for Life President and CEO Catherine Glenn Foster told LifeZette in a statement.
“The Supreme Court agreed with our arguments that a sign on a wall is not consent. I am delighted that the Supreme Court has vindicated the First Amendment today and strongly affirmed the free speech rights of all Americans,” Foster said.
California’s law was a “classic example of compelled speech,” according to Grazie Pozo Christie, policy adviser for The Catholic Association.
“The Court recognized this injustice as what it is: a violation of the First Amendment rights that make America a beacon and an example to the world,” she said in a statement.
Lila Rose, founder and president of the anti-abortion group Live Action, said in a statement that pregnancy centers are performing important work educating women and providing baby supplies and parenting classes.
“Planned Parenthood and pro-abortion politicians in California manufactured this law specifically to target pro-life pregnancy centers,” she stated. “This unjust law was one of the worst offenses against First Amendment rights we’ve seen and shows the illegal lengths the abortion industry and its political allies are willing to go to suppress the pro-life viewpoint and promote the killing of children in the womb.”
Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council (FRC), argued that it is a “grave concern” that such a law could even be passed in America.
“What if the government made a vegan grocer post ads for the local butcher shop? Everyone would agree that that’s not fair,” he said in a statement. “This case is no different, and thankfully the Court recognized that fact.”
Abortion-rights activists, however, blasted the decision.
“There are over 2700 fake women’s health centers across the U.S., and every day they lie to more and more women about their healthcare,” the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) tweeted.
The group also warned that the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide is at greater risk than ever: “WE CAN’T LET ANOTHER TRUMP JUSTICE ANYWHERE NEAR THE COURT.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra tweeted that the ruling was “unfortunate & undercuts efforts to make sure #California women are aware of publicly funded reproductive healthcare services.”
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LifeZette senior editor Deirdre Reilly contributed to this report.