On 13 November 2017, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear NIFLA v. Becerra, a dispute over the meaning of free speech. The case is about a 2015 California law requiring the state’s more than 200 “crisis pregnancy centres” to notify patients whether they actually have a medical licence, and to tell all patients that California subsidises birth control and abortion services. Faith-based, anti-abortion groups, who run these centres, argue that the law violates their freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution. What the centers appear to seek is the freedom not to have to provide crucial information to women about who they are (and are not) and what they stand for.
These centres often place themselves near abortion clinics to draw pregnant women in need of medical help. But they may offer limited or no actual medical services, and they use anti-abortion information to try to counsel women out of having an abortion. They may also offer medically discredited propaganda. That is why California passed the Reproductive FACT Act, informing women
that California has public programmes offering free or low-cost comprehensive family planning services, antenatal care and abortion. If the centre is not a medical facility, it must also state this, and that it has no licensed medical provider providing services.
The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, who took the original suit, claim that the FACT Act forces their centres to endorse a message that conflicts with their aims. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the California law last October, saying that giving information about family planning services does not constitute an endorsement.
The Supreme Court said it will limit its consideration of the California case to the question of free speech, and is therefore not expected to address the centres’ claims of violation of religious freedom, though these were also part of the original suit. If the Court votes to uphold the California statute, it could lead to the invalidation of many anti-abortion counselling laws across the USA on similar grounds. On the other hand, if the Court rules that California cannot compel these centres to provide information about family planning and abortion services and disclose their lack of a medical licence, other states may not be able to continue to force abortion providers to give their patients discredited anti-abortion misinformation, which they currently do.
A ruling is expected soon.
SOURCES: Slate, by Dahlia Lithwick, Mark Joseph Stern, 13 November 2017 ; Christianity Today, by Kate Shellnutt, + PHOTO, 13 November 2017