- - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Once again, the topics of abortion and free speech made an appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court at oral arguments Tuesday. This time, in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, the court is considering a California law designed to thwart the efforts of pro-life pregnancy centers.

We often think about the ongoing debate over abortion in grandiose terms — envisioning heated exchanges in legislative and town halls. But while those public conversations are important, what we sometimes forget is the many private conversations on this topic. In particular, it’s the countless individual discussions between women facing unplanned pregnancies and the people whose counsel they seek where the theoretical becomes painstakingly real — where, quite literally, life-and-death decisions are made.

Those women are forced to consider difficult questions. “How will I afford this child?” “This will change so much about my life. Am I ready for that?”

Pro-life pregnancy centers exist to walk alongside those women, offering a listening ear for their concerns and, if necessary, a shoulder to cry on. At no charge, they provide practical resources and information about pregnancy and finances, and they invite these women into a loving community of people that exists to help welcome their child into the world and support them long after that.

While the centers respect these women’s right to make their own decisions, they approach all discussions about abortion from the viewpoint that abortion is morally wrong and harmful to women. Not surprisingly, then, they encourage women to choose life for their children. That’s one of their core purposes.

But the state of California disagrees with their pro-life message and doesn’t want these centers spreading it. Although the state is free to have its own view, it cannot pass a law designed to undermine and suppress the pro-life pregnancy centers’ constitutionally protected efforts to reach and counsel these women.

Yet the state has done just that in two ways. First, it forces the pregnancy centers that are medical clinics to point the way to abortion by providing a phone number that they can call to access state-funded abortions. This compels groups whose very purpose is encouraging alternatives to abortion to use their own speech to facilitate abortion. This law is particularly egregious because the state-funded abortions often pad the pocket of the abortion industry, the prime sponsor of the law.

Second, the California law forces the non-medical pro-life centers to include large-print disclaimers in up to 13 different languages in all their digital and print ads. The disclaimers are designed to prevent pro-life centers from even telling women that the centers exist, and the disclaimers wrongly imply that the centers should have a license — when that’s just not true. In fact, the state hasn’t pointed to anywhere else in California law where it imposes such onerous requirements.

The government can’t force people to say things that violate their conscience, that directly oppose their lawful mission or that so obviously burden their outreach efforts. No one would suggest that breastfeeding advocates should have to provide coupons for free baby formula or that the government can force a vegetarian nutritionist to extol the benefits of beef to her patients.

What’s worse here is that the compelled speech strikes at the heart of a deeply divisive and important moral, philosophical and religious issue for so many. It’s wrong for the state to put its thumb on the scale and co-opt private voices with whom it disagrees.

Nor is there any reasonable doubt that California passed this law to uniquely harm the pro-life centers. The state has told the Supreme Court that a primary purpose for its law is to inform women who are pregnant about the availability of state-funded resources. But if that were true, why did California draw its law so narrowly that it excluded all obstetricians in private practice and many free community clinics that see pregnant women?

The state has tried to justify the targeting of unlicensed centers by suggesting that these centers have somehow misled women. Yet there is no evidence in the case of that, no evidence that a center has hindered even one woman in California from obtaining desired services, and no evidence that the state has ever sought to enforce its existing laws to prosecute such conduct. Either this interest isn’t all that important to the state, or the claims that the abortion industry make about the pro-life centers just aren’t true.

The Supreme Court has been quite adept at fishing out these kinds of government shenanigans. It has recognized time and again that if we are to remain free to engage in open discourse on the most pressing social issues, the government cannot devise laws to harm speakers on one side.

Because that is precisely what California has done here, the Supreme Court should strike down this law. By the end of spring, we’re hopeful that that’s what the court will do.

Kristen Waggoner is senior vice president of U.S. legal division for Alliance Defending Freedom and represents the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates.

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