Abortion, free speech in spotlight at top US court

Olivia HAMPTON, Sébastien BLANC
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A pro-abortion activist demonstrates in front of the US Supreme Court as the court hears a challenge to California law requiring anti-abortion pregnancy clinics to distribute information on family planning services

US Supreme Court justices from across the ideological spectrum reacted with skepticism Tuesday to a California law requiring private anti-abortion facilities to inform pregnant clients they can obtain the procedure elsewhere.

The case, brought by the Christian conservative group National Institute of Family and Life Advocates that runs so-called "crisis pregnancy centers," brings the hot-button issues of abortion and free speech to the fore once more at the highest court in the land.

Critics say the centers use deceptive tactics to trick women into thinking they are entering an abortion clinic -- in a bid to dissuade them from going through with the procedure.

The central question of the case is whether the state can provide women with basic information about their own reproductive rights and government-funded or subsidized options.

Anti-abortion groups argue that the 2015 California law, backed by Democrats, violates their right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

"There's at least a question that arises as to whether this statute has been gerrymandered" for only some providers, which would hamper free speech, the left-leaning Justice Elena Kagan said.

A provision of the law that requires unlicensed centers to indicate their status in large type and several languages is an "undue burden," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who holds a critical swing vote. "That should suffice to invalidate the statute," he added.

Michael Farris, representing the state's centers, said the law was an unconstitutional violation of their free speech rights because it was forcing them to communicate messages that go against their beliefs.

"California took aim at pro-life pregnancy centers by compelling licensed centers to point the way to an abortion and imposing onerous advertising rules on unlicensed centers that do not provide ultrasounds or any other medical services," he said.

"The state then provided exemptions for all other medical providers who serve pregnant women," he said.

- 'Fake women's health centers' -

Women with unplanned pregnancies who attend the facilities are encouraged to parent or offer up their babies for adoption, rather than end their pregnancy.

California's law requires such centers to clearly tell their clients whether they are able to practice medicine and whether health care professionals are on hand.

The facilities must also post notices providing information about public programs offering free or low-cost contraception, abortion and prenatal care.

"If you're trying to educate a class of persons about their rights, it's pretty unusual to force a private speaker to do that for you under the First Amendment," commented Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was nominated to the bench by Republican President Donald Trump.

But Ilyse Hogue, president of reproductive rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, dismissed the providers as "fake women's health centers," saying they "cannot operate without being dependent on lies and deception to get women to their doors."

California's legislature similarly found that the state's more than 200 centers use "intentionally deceptive advertising and counseling practices (that) often confuse, misinform and even intimidate women from making fully-informed, time-sensitive decisions about critical health care."

The case represents the court's first major test on abortion rights since Trump took office, and with Gorsuch sitting on the bench.

An anti-abortion push has swept the United States since Trump took office in January 2017, with his Republican Party that opposes abortion controlling Congress.

On Monday, Mississippi's Republican Governor Phil Bryant signed a bill that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, including in cases of rape or incest, down from a 20-week limit.

In the current national context, the high court's decision will likely have ramifications beyond California, the most populous state.

The Supreme Court's ruling is expected by late June.