California lawmakers are moving forward with a bill that would require pregnancy care centers to tell clients they can get abortions from state-funded facilities.
The Reproductive FACT Act passed out of the Assembly Health Committee in mid-April by an 11-5 vote, despite more than 80 witnesses testifying against it.
Assembly Bill 775 would require all medically licensed pregnancy centers in California to inform clients the state offers publicly funded family planning services, prenatal care, and abortions. The notices would include a phone number clients could call to access those services. The law also would require unlicensed pregnancy centers to provide notices stating they don’t have state approval. Failure to comply carries a $500 fine for the first offense and a $1,000 fine for subsequent offenses.
Though bill sponsor David Chiu, a Democrat, said it doesn’t impinge on pregnancy centers’ rights, pro-life advocates disagree. Heather Gebelin Hacker, a lawyer affiliated with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said in testimony the bill violates the First Amendment by forcing pregnancy centers to provide a government-mandated, pro-abortion message. Expert witnesses from California Coalition of Pregnancy Clinics and Centers and Real Options Pregnancy Medical Clinics also testified against the bill.
“If a center speaks truthfully, it can choose what it says without any disclaimer,” Hacker told the committee. “[AB 775, instead] does exactly what the First Amendment prohibits.” Hacker also told me laws already exist to hold pregnancy centers accountable, should they falsely advertise.
And federal court precedent has upheld pregnancy center rights over similar laws passed in New York City, Austin, Texas, and Montgomery County, Md. A federal court struck down most of the New York City law in January 2014. Five months later, another federal court struck down the Austin law. And in March 2014, a federal court struck down the Maryland law, citing the county’s inability to provide evidence that pregnancy centers harmed or mislead pregnant women.
As in Maryland, no evidence exists of women harmed by current pregnancy center practices in California, said Jor-El Godsey, vice president of Heartbeat International. Godsey’s organization has 69 affiliates in California, including maternity homes, non-profit adoption agencies, and pregnancy centers. It is working with the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates and Care Net to oppose the bill.
“These are First Amendment issues,” Godsey said. “They seem intent on … making California go back to the court to make that point.”
In addition to First Amendment violations, the bill imposes on the free exercise of religion, said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a Republican member of the committee. Patterson, who helped found a pregnancy center, adopted two children saved through pregnancy center care and advocated against the bill. The abortion alternatives provided by pregnancy centers stem from a religious conviction on the sanctity of life, he told me. By violating pregnancy centers’ free speech rights, the bill would violate the centers’ freedom of religious expression.
“This is a bully bill,” he said. “This is an effort to strip out free speech and to strip out religious practice rights. This is an exceptionally dangerous, unconstitutional effort that must be defeated.”
The bill will next appear before the Assembly Judiciary Committee before heading to the full Assembly for a vote.
— by Courtney Crandell