Religious Freedom Battle Brewing Over California's New Crisis Pregnancy Center Regulations

New law requires religiously rooted clinics for pregnant women to offer info about state abortion services and admit if they are not medically licensed.


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Last Friday night, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law controversial legislation concerning so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" (CPCs). Under the new regulations, these religiously rooted counseling and health care clinics for pregnant women will have to disclose when they're not licensed medical providers—something CPCs been known to gloss over in marketing and initial contact with women. CPCs that are licensed as reproductive health clinics must now post a notice or in some other way notify patients that the state has programs to help low-income women access both prenatal care and abortion services. The new law takes effect January 1, 2016. 

"California provides innovative public programs that offer critical reproductive and prenatal health care to women, regardless of ability to pay," Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) said in a statement. "We know that reproductive and pregnancy-related care is time sensitive. Our legislation ensures that women receive timely and standard care when seeking services in our state, no matter where they go."  

Similar regulations have failed to pass legal muster in cities that have attempted them, including Austin, Baltimore, and New York. But Amy Everitt, director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, told Mother Jones that "this bill is sort of a lessons-learned bill from all the previous efforts." More from MJ

Regulating crisis pregnancy centers, even in blue states, has proved an elusive goal. Federal courts have struck down several laws forcing crisis pregnancy centers to make certain disclosures, such as informing women that they do not offer abortions, birth control, or referrals for those services.

Local officials in Baltimore, New York City, Austin, Maryland's Montgomery County, and San Francisco have all attempted to regulate crisis pregnancy centers with mixed degrees of success. Federal courts are split over several laws forcing crisis pregnancy centers to disclose up front that they are not medically licensed or do not refer for abortion, and to specify which medical services they do or do not provide.

Attempting to avoid a similar outcome in California, Everitt says, NARAL enlisted the office of Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris. Harris' office helped draft the bill from its inception with an eye toward eliminating openings for a First Amendment challenge—although a spokeswoman for Harris cautioned that the state's involvement was no guarantee of success. Harris vocally backed the new law. 

Their track record in federal court forced the drafters to leave what they saw as large holes in the new law. "We wish we could get crisis pregnancy centers to stop spreading scientifically unsound messages," Everitt says, but such a law would likely be struck down in court.

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Without this requirement, the California bill may stand up to a constitutional challenge. The biggest overreaches in previous attempts to regulate CPCs has involved trying to force the non-medical clinics—what are essentially religious counseling and charity centers—to offer information on contraception and/or abortionstop and to stop spreading "medically unsound" information (such as saying abortion can increase breast cancer risk, something that may be discredited but isn't any more ridiculous than vaccines causing autism or diets based on your blood type or praying to increase fertility, all things we let non-licensed medical groups tell people).

The California bill merely requires these non-licensed CPCs to disclose that they are, in fact, not licensed medical centers. It's the licensed CPCs that must, regardless of operators' religious beliefs, provide a bare minimum of information about state-provided contraceptive, abortion, and prenatal services. There are almost 170 crisis pregnancy centers in California, according to NARAL ProChoice America, and about 40 percent are licensed medical clinics. 

The umbrella organizations behind many CPCs have been pushing affiliate clinics to seek state medical licensing in greater numbers. With it, however, comes less room to circumvent state medical regulations. "The more there's a relationship with the state, the more you have leeway to regulate crisis pregnancy centers," Rebecca Griffin, an assistant director for NARAL in California, told Mother Jones. "It's an opportunity for us."

Specifically, all licensed reproductive health clinics in in California, including licensed CPCs, must now post or directly provide patients with a notice that "California has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services (including all FDA-approved methods of contraception), prenatal care, and abortion for eligible women. To determine whether you qualify, contact the county social services office at [insert the telephone number]." Whether this requirement can survive a First Amendment challenge is less certain than the medical licensing-disclosure requirement. 

CPCs are already pushing back against the new California law, with two groups filing a lawsuit against the state on Saturday. The plaintiffs, A Woman's Friend Pregnancy Resource Clinic of Marysville, California, and the Crisis Pregnancy Center of Northern California, are both licensed reproductive health clinics that provide services such as pregnancy testing and ultrasounds.

Their suit, filed by the Pacific Justice Institute, alleges that the new law "unconstitutionally compels (the clinics) to speak messages that they have not chosen, with which they do not agree, and that distract, and detract from, the messages they have chosen to speak," in violation of their right to freedom of speech. In addition, they say, "disseminating the mandated state message, which is inconsistent with plaintiffs' religious convictions, burdens these clinics' free exercise of religion, secured under the First Amendment."