Pro-life pregnancy centers challenge state law

California’s pro-life pregnancy resource centers — many of which are operated by staff motivated by their Catholic pro-life convictions — are in the midst of a battle against another significant legislative challenge: the 2015 passage of the Reproductive FACT Act, or A.B. 775. The act was introduced by Democrat Assembly members David Chiu (San Francisco) and Autumn Burke (Los Angeles) and mandates that pro-life pregnancy resource centers providing medical services disperse information about how to obtain state-funded abortions.

Additionally, centers that provide counseling, pregnancy support and parenting classes but not medical services must display signage indicating that they are not state-licensed medical facilities in the principal languages spoken in their communities. This information must also be displayed in any advertising, websites, brochures or other promotional material.

Legal challenges

Sponsors of A.B. 775 include the National Abortion Rights Action League Pro-Choice California. In a statement defending A.B. 775, Assembly member Chiu said, “California has a proud legacy of providing safe access to preventative, prenatal and reproductive services to all women. Unfortunately, a growing and alarming movement is working to mislead women in order to achieve their political ideology. We have a responsibility as lawmakers to make sure that the information given to women who are making their own healthcare decisions is accurate and timely.”

A Global Pro-Life Effort
The pro-life network that exists today is the product of individuals who started hotlines, opened their homes to pregnant women or adopted in the years following the legalization of abortion. Their endeavors expanded into crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes and stronger adoption programs. In 1971 Alternative to Abortion International was formed to coordinate these pro-life efforts. In 1993 the organization changed its name to Heartbeat International. Today, Heartbeat International serves 1,800 pregnancy centers on six continents. Their 24-hour call center receives on average 600 contacts a day. By their estimates 25,000 volunteers save 3,000 unborn lives a week.

Lawyers representing many California pro-life pregnancy resource centers have challenged the law, which took effect Jan. 1, 2016. Most recently, the Ninth District Court of Appeals upheld the law; the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether or not to take up the case in September. If the Supreme Court takes up the case, arguments will be this fall.

Kathleen Eaton-Bravo is CEO of the Obria Group, which operates one Los Angeles County and three Orange County pro-life medical clinics in California. She said it was “heartbreaking” to put up signs that had a phone number people could call to arrange for an abortion, “but our only alternative was to lose our license and close our clinics. And, if we close, the pro-abortion side wins.”

Instead, she said, “We buried the sign amidst about six other signs — commitment to care, patient’s bill of rights, that sort of thing. As of Jan. 1, 2016, the law says I have to put up the sign, but it doesn’t say I can’t put other signs up with it.”

Contrary to the belief of the authors of A.B. 775, she said, Obria clinics never have misled clients about their mission: “We clearly say in all of our advertising and on our website that we do not provide contraceptives or abortion. Women come to us wanting what we have to offer.”

Free speech issue

Thomas Glessner is an attorney and president of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA). His organization represents 135 pregnancy resource centers in California that have challenged the law, 85 of which are medical clinics. He believes that the Reproductive FACT Act is an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

“The right of free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution includes the protection of the right not to speak, to not be compelled by the government to speak a message with which you do not agree,” Glessner said.

A.B. 775 is forcing pro-life clinics to become abortion referral agencies, he said, and should they refuse, they could face fines and closure. “The state cannot force clinic staff to speak a message which violates their convictions,” Glessner said.

Two other states, Hawaii and Illinois, have passed similar legislation. The Illinois law is known as P.A. 99-690 or S.B. 1564; on July 19, a preliminary injunction was granted by a U.S. district court because it “targets the free-speech rights of people who have a specific viewpoint.”

According to Thomas Olp, an attorney for the Thomas More Society, the suspended Illinois law would have affected about 90 pregnancy resource centers in the state. Multiple lawsuits were filed against the act; Olp represented 20 centers challenging the law.

Olp also argues that the law is a free speech violation and noted that the state does not have a compelling interest to violate that free speech, as abortion providers are easily located by an Internet search or in the phone book.

Part of a trend

Olp said that the American Civil Liberties Union and the “abortion industry” were behind the passage of P.A. 99-690, an attempt “to figure out how to make pregnancy centers less effective.”

“People should be aware that this is part of a trend,” Olp said. “The abortion battles are not going away. For people interested in promoting abortion, this is just one avenue of attack. Pro-life people must be vigilant.”

Clare Venegas, Eaton-Bravo’s colleague and president of Obria, agreed. Referring to the California and Illinois laws as a “first step” in efforts to hamper the work of pregnancy resource centers, she pointed to other legislation, such as California’s proposed universal health care bill, which potentially could force the closure of all such centers. Venegas has joined in an effort to mobilize the state’s pregnancy resource centers to lobby the state capital on their behalf.

Glessner believes that laws such as A.B. 775 boil down to “hatred for the pro-life position.”

“I’ve been in this battle for 30 years, and what I’ve seen is people so in love with abortion that they cannot tolerate life-affirming centers offering free services to enable life,” Glessner said.

Someone who is “honestly pro-choice” may disagree with the pro-life position, he said, but he or she should have no problem with a pregnancy resource center that “empowers mothers to choose life.” But most advocating such laws as A.B. 775, he said, “are not pro-choice but pro-abortion. They want to shut down pregnancy resource centers.”

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision whether or not to take up the challenge to A.B. 775 and its subsequent ruling for or against the law would have a significant impact on whether or not the Illinois or Hawaii laws are found constitutional.

Additionally, should the court rule in favor of A.B. 775, it could prompt other states to enact similar legislation, said Glessner.

Glessner encourages those sympathetic to the pro-life cause to pray that the U.S. Supreme Court agree to take up the case challenging A.B. 775 and for a ruling against the law. NIFLA has launched a 24-hour-a-day prayer vigil Aug. 1-Sept. 25 and has asked that churches and other organizations sign up on their website (www.nifla.org) to pray specifically on a particular day.

Eaton-Bravo is among those praying. “This law is wrong and takes away our rights to have a medical clinic that does not go against our conscience,” she said. “If we see it overturned, we’re going to have a ‘burn the sign’ celebration.”

Jim Graves writes from California.