A law forcing Montgomery County women's centers to tell patrons if they don't have a doctor on staff is set to be heard by a federal appellate court on Thursday as attorneys weigh the need for accurate abortion information against constitutional rights of free speech.
At issue is a Montgomery County law adopted in early 2010 that requires any Montgomery County person or place that provides "pregnancy-related services" but does not have any medical personnel on staff to post a notice saying so. The sign also must state that "the Montgomery County Health officer encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider."
The two-year battle, according to court documents, pits the county's "concern about the accuracy and truthfulness" of information about pregnancy provided by those organizations against the Centro Tepeyac Silver Spring Women's Center, which claims the county's law is unconstitutional and is "designed to regulate pregnancy counseling by pro-life centers, but not ... by abortion clinics."
Similar debates are raging across the United States. Because it is in federal court, this case could have national implications on how local governments can communicate pregnancy options to women.
Centro Tepeyac describes itself as a nonprofit Catholic women's service center that offers pregnancy tests, education and counseling as well as a "meaningful alternative to abortion." Under the law, it would be forced to post in its waiting room the message about not having medical providers and the advice about seeking a licensed health care provider.
On the other hand, abortion clinics, which require on-staff licensed medical professionals to perform the procedures, would be exempt from the rule, the alliance argues in court papers. The lawsuit, filed by Centro Tepeyac, claims this is discriminatory and requiring the signs infringes on its free speech and 14th Amendment rights.
The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments from both sides of the debate in Richmond on Thursday.
Matt Bowman, an attorney with the Alliance for Defending Freedom, which is representing Centro Tepeyac, said his hope is that the court will preserve the center's right to share its pro-life message without government interference.
"The law says that if you're pro-life and you want to talk about pregnancy, and you're completely truthful, you still must recite the government's negative messages to try to scare women away from the real pro-life resources you are offering them," he said.
The center argues that facilities that offer abortions may not have health care professionals counseling women on pregnancy-related issues.
"Abortion clinics can counsel women about pregnancy options without disclaimers as to the scope of their services," Centro Tepeyac's lawsuit states. "These clinics are exempt from the law, even if no licensed healthcare providers are involved in the pregnancy options counseling in any way."
According to court papers filed by Montgomery County Attorney Marc P. Hansen, the county enacted the law as a result of the County Council's worry that incorrect information was being shared by some women's health organizations.
Among supporting evidence used in the county's case was a 2008 report by NARAL Pro-Choice America Maryland, which gave details about some pregnancy resource centers "providing misleading, or, in some cases, completely false," information.
Among the "misinformation" listed in court cases were testimonies from clients that mentioned emotional and physical side effects from having an abortion.
"We certainly don't disagree with their ability to exist," said Jodi Finkelstein, who is the executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice America Maryland. "They certainly have that right, and not everybody believes in abortion. We have a problem with misinformation handed out."
Part of the importance of posting a sign, Ms. Finkelstein said, is not only to avoid conveying misinformation but also to stop misleading advertising.
"It's consumer protection," she said. "If you provide a service, someone should know what services they get and what they won't get."
The case has been regarded as an example of the national debate over whether pregnancy advice can be given by agencies representing both sides of the abortion debate.
"We're hopeful that the real help and resources that pro-life centers offer women will not be subject to an attack on their free speech by legislative allies of the abortion industry," Mr. Bowman said.
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