In this April 15, 2013 photo, abortion opponent Corrie Zastrow, left, calls out to patients while clinic escorts secure signs on the front gates to prevent the abortion opponents from visually confronting patients as they enter the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Miss. A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked Mississippi from revoking the license of the state's only abortion clinic, saying the state cannot close the clinic while it still has a federal lawsuit pending to challenge the 2012 law. A trial date has not been set. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Why California’s Crisis Pregnancy Centers Case Is Headed to the Supreme Court

The case will answer whether it’s a First Amendment violation to require crisis pregnancy centers to share incriminating information.
December 4, 2017
8 mins read

The Supreme Court decided in early November to hear a case about crisis pregnancy centers and what they are required to tell women about their pregnancy. The case is a California case, as laws in the state require crisis pregnancy centers to notify eligible women about low-cost or free family-planning, prenatal and abortion services, as well as provide a relevant phone number.

State law also requires unlicensed centers to post notices telling women they are unlicensed as a medical facility by the State of California, as well as if they don’t have a licensed medical provider at the center. The case is centered around crisis pregnancy centers, how they go about providing information and care to women and whether the state can regulate what they tell women who come to them.

What Are Crisis Pregnancy Centers?

Crisis pregnancy centers, also called pregnancy resource centers, are centers with anti-abortion ideals whose goal is to convince women to choose an option other than abortion. Many CPCs are run by three major organizations: National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, Heartbeat International and Care Net, and the number of CPCs eclipses the number of abortion clinics in the United States, with an estimated 2,300-3,500 CPCs and only 1,800 abortion clinics.

By operating under the umbrella of one of the three aforementioned organizations, CPCs receive access to training, financial assistance, legal advice and general assistance. The centers can be medically licensed and provide services such as pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, while also offering pro-life counseling meant to encourage women to keep their pregnancy.

Crisis pregnancy centers began in the late sixties when the first center was opened in Hawaii and, through the support of these large pro-life organizations, have continued to grow since then. CPCs are also eligible for state and/or federal funding, in the form of direct allocations or tax credits in state budgets, as well as through the sale of “choose life” license plates and federal “abstinence-only” programs. 

Praises of Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Crisis pregnancy centers are praised by anti-abortion politicians and pro-life advocates. The Heartbeat International website, for example, features a testimonial that captures the general tenor of their praise, saying the organization “compassionately fulfill a critical need in our society – that of helping those facing an unexpected pregnancy with real choices and resources to empower and encourage life, hope and healing.”

In addition to the overt support of pro-life figures, state and federal governments also indirectly fund their practice.

Criticisms of Crisis Pregnancy Centers

There are multiple criticisms surrounding the centers, beginning with how they advertise themselves. Even though they only provide anti-abortion counseling, CPCs often list themselves under abortion services and other abortion-related headings in phone books or online directories.

Another criticism of these centers is that they provide misinformation about a range of issues, including lying about the gestational age of a fetus and the complications of abortion, and they have forced women to watch media intended to scare them into keeping a pregnancy.

Planned Parenthood versus Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Where Planned Parenthood and crisis pregnancy centers differ is in their tactics and ideologies regarding how they do their business. As many CPCs are faith-based, they mostly concern themselves with encouraging women to keep a pregnancy and focus primarily on informing women about available options.

Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, provides care for a wider range of medical care than CPCs do, including abortion services, hormone replacement therapy, LGTBQ+ counseling, HIV services and emergency contraceptives. Planned Parenthood is also secular.

The Case in Question

The case surrounding crisis pregnancy centers is centered on a California law, the Reproductive FACT Act, which requires CPCs to post a notice letting women know about the low-cost or free family planning, prenatal and abortion services that the state provides, as well as the phone number women can contact to inquire about their eligibility for such services. The law also requires that centers not medically licensed and without a licensed medical provider to provide a notice making that clear.

The group representing CPCs in the Supreme Court case, the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, says that being forced to post these signs violates their First Amendment rights. According to their defense, posting explanatory signs requires them to disseminate a message that they would not share otherwise, one that contradicts their pro-life viewpoint.

Billboards for crisis pregnancy centers, such as this one, advertise themselves as an ally for pregnant women (Image via WNPR)

A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously decided, however, that these required notices do not violate the First Amendment rights of crisis pregnancy centers.

Regarding the required notices telling women about state-funded abortion, prenatal and family-planning services, the opinion by Judge Dorothy W. Nelson read: “The Notice informs the reader only of the existence of publicly-funded family-planning services. It does not contain any more speech than necessary, nor does it encourage, suggest, or imply that women should use those state-funded services.”

In regard to the required notice telling women about a lack of licensed medical providers and a lack of a medical license for the clinic, the opinion said this: “California has a compelling interest in informing pregnant women when they are using the medical services of a facility that has not satisfied licensing standards set by the state…the Unlicensed notice helps ensure women, who may be particularly vulnerable when they are searching for and using family-planning clinical services, are fully informed that the clinic they are trusting with their well-being is not subject to the traditional regulations that oversee those professions who are licensed by the state.”

The Supreme Court agreed to hear this case, known officially as National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, Becerra being Xavier Becerra, the current attorney general for California, on November 13.

NIFLA v. Becerra is one of two major religious free-speech cases the Supreme Court has agreed to hear; the other being Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case in which a cake baker refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple and was subsequently charged with violation of the state’s civil rights law. The justices will hear his appeal on December 5.

Lizzy Spangler, University of North Texas

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Lizzy Spangler

University of North Texas
Digital and Print Journalism

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