These LA Pregnancy Centers Don't Have To Talk To You About Abortions

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The Supreme Court effectively put an end to a California law that forces anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers to provide information about abortion. A clinic in San Diego is shown above. (Gregory Bull/AP)

The greater Los Angeles area is home to 68 religious-based crisis pregnancy centers that are at the center of a Supreme Court decision affecting what information women get about abortion.

That decision effectively struck down a California law that required anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers to tell their patients that abortions are an option.

Confused about what's going on and how it might affect you? Here's what you need to know.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

In 2014, the abortion-rights advocacy group NARAL sent pregnant women to 49 crisis pregnancy centers in California in an undercover investigation.

NARAL officials were concerned that women being served by these religious-based clinics were being given incomplete or inaccurate information about abortion and their legal options. In its report, NARAL alleged nine out of the 10 centers visited presented false or incomplete information about abortions.

For example, NARAL claimed that one center told women that having an abortion was linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, infertility and other health problems. The American Cancer Society has said studying whether such ties exist is difficult.

OK, HOW DID THAT TURN INTO A SUPREME COURT ISSUE?

NARAL and other critics argued that the centers' main objective was to dissuade women from having abortions by providing false and/or misleading medical information about the health and mental risks of abortions.

It's an argument that caught the ear of California lawmakers.

They responded by passing the Reproductive FACT (Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency) Act, which went into effect in 2016. The law mandated that state-licensed crisis pregnancy centers must notify patients that California offers access to free and low-cost abortions.

The religious-based crisis pregnancy centers challenged the law in court, arguing that it violated their rights to free speech and freedom of religion. The Supreme Court agreed, in a 5-4 vote, saying the California law likely violates freedom of speech because the state can't force these crisis pregnancy centers to deliver a message they don't agree with.

WHAT'S IT LIKE IN A CRISIS PREGNANCY CENTER?

In a 2016 KPCC investigation, reporter Rebecca Plevin visited eight Los Angeles-area crisis pregnancy centers. Foothills Pregnancy Resource Center in Duarte had an "options counseling room," and the ultrasound room walls were covered with posters of unborn fetuses in different developmental stages.

Pointing to one poster, Executive Director Lori Berg said, "This picture - eight weeks - can make a difference. Now, if someone says that's coercive - this is science. This isn't something I dreamt up."

Berg added, "we have a video about the basic suction abortion - that's before first trimester. But there's nothing gory. A woman can see for herself, this is the procedure."

The center also offered support groups for women who'd had abortions and gave away free diapers and clothes to new moms.

Berg's center wasn't complying with the FACT Act when KPCC visited. When asked why, she compared the dispute over the law to the Cola Wars.

"I'm Pepsi-Cola, I'm not Coca-Cola," said Berg. "Don't force me to put Coca-Cola posters or even hand out free coupons for Coca-Cola."

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

In his majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said the pregnancy centers "are likely to succeed" in their constitutional challenge to the law's notification requirement. That means the centers can go back to court to get an order halting the law's enforcement. An attorney for the challengers said they expect to do that quickly.

Melissa Murray, a professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt School of Law, said the state could take another stab at requiring some form of notification.

"The state could go back, fix the law and bring it in compliance with the First Amendment," she said.

WHAT'S THE REACTION?

The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, which brought the lawsuit challenging the FACT Act on behalf of pregnancy centers, applauded the decision.

The case was "not just about whether or not to hand out abortion information on a piece of paper or post it on the walls of our pro-life centers," said the group's Vice President Anne O'Connor. "it is about the right belonging to all American citizens to be free from government-compelled speech, and from being coerced into promoting a message that contradicts their values."

National Institute President, CEO and General Counsel Michael Farris, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said California had been using "its power to force pro-life pregnancy centers to provide free advertising for abortion. The Supreme Court said that the government can't do that, and that it must respect pro-life beliefs."

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra condemned the Supreme Court's ruling. "All California women - regardless of their economic background or zip code - deserve access to critical and non-biased information to make their own informed decisions," he said in a statement.

Becerra said the state will work to ensure residents receive accurate information about their health care options.


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