by Katie Daniels
California crisis pregnancy centers are fighting a new law that would require them to advertise public programs that provide abortion and contraceptives. The pregnancy centers, which are often run by religious opponents to abortion, argue that the law violates their First Amendment rights to free speech.
“I don’t want to put up a sign telling you where you can go for an abortion,” said Josh McClure, the director of East County Pregnancy Care Clinic outside of San Diego. “The sign is not up here now because it’s unconstitutional.”
At a time when many states are passing restrictions against abortion clinics, California passed this new law in January to counteract what state officials claim is misleading advice offered by pregnancy centers.
According to NARAL Pro-Choice California, there are between 170 and 200 such crisis pregnancy centers operating in California, part of nearly 3,000 nationwide. The clinics offer their clients practical resources that enable them to choose alternatives to abortion, like parenting or adoption.
At McClure’s clinic, which served 674 women in 2015, a client receives a free pregnancy test and meeting with counselors about her options. If she is pregnant, the center offers a free ultrasound and childbirth classes, as well as free diapers and car seats. McClure says that the East County Clinic is not trying to mislead women. Instead, they provide information to allow women to make their own decisions.
Located in El Cajon, an impoverished city outside of San Diego, close to half of the center’s clients are unmarried. 32% are Caucasian, 29% are Hispanic, 12% are Arabic, and 12% are African American. According to McClure, 1 in 3 clients initially considered an abortion, but only a small percentage did not end up keeping their child.
The East County Clinic has one nurse manager and 10 nurse volunteers. In California, 70 such centers are licensed, which means they have a supervising physician and employ nurses and volunteer counselors. Ironically, since the majority of pregnancy centers are unlicensed, the state struggles to justify regulating their speech as opposed to that of state-licensed professionals.
Federal courts have previously struck down similar laws that would force pregnancy centers to state that they do not provide abortion referrals in New York City and other places. But in California, three federal district courts and one state court have all refused to block the law.
On January 28, the conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, filed a preliminary injunction against the law on behalf of the East Country Clinic and others.
Deputy attorney general Anthony Hakl argued on the state’s behalf, saying “The interest of the state is compelling— that is to ensure women’s access to a complete range of reproductive health services.”
Matt Bowman, a lawyer representing the pregnancy centers, disagreed. “You’ve got to give women information about abortion even though the reason you exist is to give them alternatives to abortion,” he pointed out in a 90-minute hearing.
Judge John A. Houston refused to grant the preliminary injunction and suggested that forcing pregnancy centers to post notices may be essential to “an informed decision.” He became the third federal judge to do so. The court battles will likely continue into next year, with the legal groups representing the pregnancy centers promising to take the issue to the Supreme Court.