By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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, finding that it violated the free speech rights of these Christian-based facilities.
The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, and while the broader issue of abortion rights was not at issue in the case, the 5-4 ruling represented a significant victory for abortion opponents who operate these kinds of clinics - called crisis pregnancy centers - 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.
Crisis pregnancy centers have said they offer legitimate health services but that it is their mission to steer women with unplanned pregnancies away from abortion. California officials have said some of the centers mislead women by presenting themselves as full-service reproductive healthcare facilities, going so far as to resemble medical clinics, down to lab coats worn by staff.
President Donald Trump's administration hailed the decision.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, "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 centers in California should not be forced to advertise abortion and undermine the very reason they exist."
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 centers" that provide biased information.
"This ruling fails to recognize or respect a woman's constitutional right to comprehensive healthcare," 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 healthcare centers, the court has made public health second to far-right political views," Phadke added.
There are roughly 2,700 crisis pregnancy centers 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 centers 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 9th U.S. 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 Governor Jerry Brown in 2015, required centers 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 centers that may have no medical provider on staff to disclose that fact.
"No one should be forced by the government to express a message that violates their convictions, especially on deeply divisive subjects such as abortion," said Michael Farris, chief executive of the Alliance Defending Freedom President conservative legal group, which represented the anti-abortion centers.
The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, an umbrella group for the non-profit facilities, as well as two such facilities in San Diego County, challenged the California law, saying it was crafted to target them for their anti-abortion views.
There is a strong religious element to the facilities involved in the case. For example, one called itself a "front line ministry" and said on its website that once women who come to the center "have accepted Christ we begin a discipleship program with them and contact a partner church to hand them off to."
While the ruling could make it harder for Democratic-leaning states that may be inclined to crack down on these centers to impose regulations, the court's endorsement of the free speech argument could help abortion rights advocates challenge laws in Republican-governed states imposing burdensome requirements on abortion clinics.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.
Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 00:07:00 IST