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Justices back pregnancy centers that oppose abortion in free-speech case

By Adam Liptak

WASHINGTON – A California law requiring “crisis pregnancy centers” to supply women with information about abortion likely violates the First Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in blocking the law.

The vote was 5-4, with the court’s more conservative justices in the majority.

The case, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, No. 16-1140, concerned a California law that requires centers operated by opponents of abortion to provide women with information about the availability of the procedure. The centers seek to persuade women to choose parenting or adoption.

The state requires the centers to post notices that free or low-cost abortion, contraception and prenatal care are available to low-income women through public programs and to provide the phone number for more information.

The centers argued that the law violated their right to free speech by forcing them to convey messages at odds with their beliefs. The law’s defenders said the notices combat incomplete or misleading information provided by the clinics.

The California Legislature found that the roughly 200 centers in the state used “intentionally deceptive advertising and counseling practices that often confuse, misinform, and even intimidate women from making fully-informed, time-sensitive decisions about critical health care.”

A separate part of the law applies to unlicensed clinics. They are not required to post notices about the availability of abortion, but are required to disclose that they are not licensed by the state.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, had upheld both parts of the law.

“California has a substantial interest in the health of its citizens, including ensuring that its citizens have access to and adequate information about constitutionally protected medical services like abortion,” Judge Dorothy W. Nelson wrote for the panel in upholding the requirement that licensed clinics post a notice about abortion.

“The notice informs the reader only of the existence of publicly funded family-planning services,” Judge Nelson wrote. “It does not contain any more speech than necessary, nor does it encourage, suggest or imply that women should use those state-funded services.”

Other federal appeals courts had struck down similar laws, saying that the government could find other ways to inform women about their options.

The 9th Circuit also upheld the requirement that unlicensed clinics disclose that they are unlicensed.

“California has a compelling interest in informing pregnant women when they are using the medical services of a facility that has not satisfied licensing standards set by the state,” Nelson wrote.

“And given the Legislature’s findings regarding the existence of” the centers, “which often present misleading information to women about reproductive medical services, California’s interest in presenting accurate information about the licensing status of individual clinics is particularly compelling.”

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