Differing Perspectives on California Law Requiring Pregnancy Clinics to Post Abortion Information

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In California, a relatively new law requires licensed pregnancy centers to prominently post or hand out a notice that free or low-cost abortion, contraception, and prenatal care are available to low-income women and to post a phone number to call as well. Pro-life crisis pregnancy centers are objecting to the law on constitutional and policy grounds, while pro-choice advocates regard it as a necessary corrective to incomplete information available at many pregnancy centers. In this column, I will consider in depth what I take to be the perspectives of critics and defenders of the law, especially those who work in (or object to the existence of) pro-life crisis pregnancy centers.

Pro-life pregnancy centers are pregnancy care centers that offer one particular kind of care to pregnant women: the kind of care that supports and encourages women taking their pregnancies to term. Inside one clinic in particular, highlighted in a New York Times article, a woman will see a counselor to discuss her options. “She will see models of fetuses at early stages of development, which show that ‘at week 12, you see a recognizable human,’” according to the clinic’s executive director. Pregnant women can also get a free ultrasound and go to childbirth classes. According to NARAL Pro-Choice California, around 70 such licensed centers operate in California.

Pro-Choice Perspective

Because I share the perspective of pro-choice advocates, let me begin this reflection by considering how such advocates likely feel about the California law mandating the provision of information about access to abortion and contraception. As someone who believes that women ought to have the right to choose whether to continue an existing pregnancy or whether to terminate it through an abortion, I worry about “pregnancy centers” that invite women to come in and explore their options without letting them know that one of those options is abortion and that if they lack the financial resources to afford an abortion, there are government programs that can help them out.

If I were pregnant and saw a sign for a Pregnancy Care Clinic, unadorned by the words “anti-abortion” or any other indication that I would be subject to a biased presentation of my options, I might walk into the clinic and make the assumption that I would be receiving neutral, factual information about my pregnancy and about the available alternative approaches I could take to it. I would not, of course, want to be pressured either to have an abortion or to have an amniocentesis or other genetic test to find out about any genetic anomalies. I have had the experience of being pressured in these directions by obstetricians and I have found it just as objectionable as I would if the pressure were coming from the other direction. As a pregnant patient, I would want to know that my providers are looking out for my best interests from my own perspective. Like a warning on a cigarette package or the Miranda warnings that suspects in custody receive from police, the poster or flier mentioning abortion helps clarify for people being subjected to someone with an agenda (to sell cigarettes, to get confessions, and to encourage childbirth, respectively) that there are alternatives to what they have heard.

Accordingly, it is not surprising to me that pro-choice advocates (and likely patients as well) would favor the new California law. The law does not require anyone at a pregnancy clinic who is pro-life to get into an in-depth discussion of abortion with patients; it simply demands transparency about the availability of the abortion procedure and financial aid for it as well as a phone number for acquiring more information. And as Vik Amar and Alan Brownstein ably argued in their column on the subject, the law likely does not conflict with clinics’ First Amendment freedom of speech (or, in this case, freedom against compelled speech).

Pro-Life Perspective

Putting myself in the shoes of a pro-life advocate, I would almost certainly object to the California law. As I would see it, my work at a pregnancy care clinic is dedicated to providing a peaceful, non-violent approach to pregnant women and their children. People, including pregnant women, are certainly aware of the existence of abortion without my having to alert them to that alternative at my clinic.

My goal, in working for a pro-life pregnancy center, would be to educate women on the many life-affirming alternatives they have when facing a new pregnancy. Maybe they are delighted to be pregnant and would never even consider an abortion. But maybe they are experiencing an unplanned pregnancy and believe that abortion is their only option, an option that they may have already been pressured to pursue by a boyfriend or other family member. I am there to tell them that if they want to keep their babies, they can do that and there are financial resources available to help make that possible. I am also there to say that if this is the wrong time for them to be raising a child, there are numerous childless couples who would feel nothing but blessed to be able to give a good home and a supportive and caring upbringing to the baby born of an unplanned pregnancy.

In my view, as a pro-life advocate, there is far too much talk of abortion. I understand that the procedure remains legal, despite my views, but that does not make it right, for either the woman in crisis or the innocent child of that woman. A sign about abortion at an otherwise peaceful pregnancy center disrupts the atmosphere of warmth and nurturance for mothers and children that such centers hope to foster.

To give an analogy from the animal rescue field, when people go to an animal shelter to adopt a dog or a cat, there are no signs on the wall that say “You could be buying the breed of your choice from a pet store or a breeder, and here is a phone number for that” even though this is factually accurate information about alternatives to adoption. There are also no signs that say “If you get bored of your pet dog in a year, you can go to the vet and have him or her put to death, no questions asked,” even though that too is largely true. Such signs (or distributed fliers with the same information) would undermine the whole meaning of the animal shelter, which is that animals are more than purchasable commodities to be created and disposed of at will.

Similarly, the philosophy of our pregnancy center is that a pregnancy is a blessing and an opportunity to be welcomed and nurtured, whatever the circumstances happen to be. In our view, abortion is an unnecessary and cruel act of violence to a new living being as well as to the pregnant woman herself. Posters and fliers connecting our visitors to information about abortion undermines our philosophy and our message as much as “alternative option” signs would do at an animal shelter. The reality is that women are aware of the abortion option and can, rather easily, access information about it if they are interested in that. Our hope is that we provide a place of refuge from what we view as an “abortion mandate” in our society, and we want that refuge to be truly free of reminders of the violent alternative that is abortion.

Who Is Right?

In thinking about both sides of this dilemma, it is difficult for me to say that one or the other side is “right.” To some degree, both are right because both are expressing their distinct perspectives and, if I have succeeded in reflecting those perspectives accurately, a perspective cannot be “wrong.” I do hold the view that having to share the limited amount of information about abortion that clinics must share is consistent with the First Amendment, and the federal courts that have so far considered challenges have refused to block the California law. But to the extent that one views the abortion option as illegitimate and wrong, it is a bitter pill to swallow to have to notify people of its existence. On the other hand, police would sometimes prefer not to give suspects Miranda warnings, and cigarette companies would probably prefer never to have to indicate the downside of smoking on their packaging. The reasonableness of the objection necessarily turns on how one views the merits of the underlying position of the objector.

For a more in-depth consideration of the merits of the pro-life and pro-choice positions and how they align with positions in favor of and against the rights of animals (including the right not to be commodified by breeders), consider reading Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, a book in which Michael C. Dorf and I explore some of the parallel ideological and strategic challenges that face the two movements, one for the rights of fetuses, and the other for the rights of nonhuman animals.

  • Joe Paulson

    Generally, you shouldn’t have to promote a message you despise, but crisis pregnancy centers put themselves out as health centers, including by look and action (such as ultrasounds). There a state has more power to regulate, including to guard against confusion.

  • Brian Thornton

    Dunno, if the opposite is legal in other states, I guess this law makes sense. Didn’t hear anyone on the pro-life side complain when Texas passed all its laws requiring doctors inform other options besides abortion, and provide the paperwork regardless of the patient’s feelings.