World

U.S. Supreme Court blocks California law on anti-abortion centres

The U.S. Supreme Court has 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.

Ruling could make it harder for states to regulate so-called crisis pregnancy clinics

The Supreme Court justices endorsed the argument advanced by the crisis pregnancy clinics that the Democratic-backed law ran afoul of the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free speech by forcing them to advertise for abortion in violation of their beliefs. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

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.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, called the decision "unfortunate" but said "our work to ensure that Californians receive accurate information about their health-care options will continue."

'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."

By siding with fake health-care centres, the court has made public health second to far-right political views.- Shilpa Phadke , Center for American Progress

U.S. House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called the ruling a "grave step backwards" for women's rights, adding that California should be able to protect people from "fake women's health centres" that provide biased information.

"This ruling fails to recognize or respect a woman's constitutional right to comprehensive health care," Pelosi said.

The decision "weaponizes the First Amendment," said Shilpa Phadke, vice-president of the Women's Initiative at the Center for American Progress liberal advocacy group.

"By siding with fake health-care centres, the court has made public health second to far-right political views," Phadke said.

Wider implications

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.

The law does not require abortion referral or prevent the centres from voicing their anti-abortion views, but rather helps ensure that clients are made aware of abortion and family planning services available elsewhere, California argued.

The justices reversed a 2016 ruling by the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that refused to block the law because it likely did not violate free speech rights.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer announced his dissent from the bench, saying the court previously upheld a law forcing doctors to tell women seeking abortion about adoption services.

If a state can do that, Breyer asked, "why should it not be able to require a medical counselor to tell a woman seeking prenatal care about childbirth and abortion services?"

Breyer said Tuesday's ruling could have wider implications, calling into question all manner of government disclosure requirements, such as in securities or consumer-protection regulations.

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.

With files from The Associated Press