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EMC Pregnancy Center, Brooklyn (AP/Bebeto Matthews)

Protecting the protectors

Abortion | A federal judge rules a New York law regulating pregnancy care centers 'offensive to free speech'

In a stinging rebuke to opponents of pregnancy care centers, a federal judge on Wednesday barred New York City officials from enforcing a law aimed at mandating how the centers describe their services to clients.

U.S. District Judge William Pauley called the law that was set to go in effect on Thursday "offensive to free speech." CeCe Heil-an attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ)-called the ruling "a resounding victory" for pro-life centers across the country.

The New York City law-pushed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and signed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in March-would have required pregnancy care centers to post information on whether they provide abortions and so-called "emergency contraception," or make referrals to groups that do.

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Opponents of the law said requiring the pro-life centers to post information about abortion violated the groups' free speech rights. Chris Slattery of Expectant Mother Care/EMC Frontline Pregnancy Care Centers-a plaintiff in the case who operates a dozen centers in the city-told The New York Times, "We think this is a resounding defeat of the Gestapo-like tactics of Christine Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg."

City leaders crafted the law shortly after NARAL Pro-Choice New York-a pro-abortion group in the city-accused pregnancy centers of making false claims to persuade women to avoid abortion. Pro-abortion groups have long disputed pro-life groups' counsel to women that abortions can cause significant physical, emotional, and spiritual harm.

The city argued that pregnancy care centers offer free services to advance religious beliefs, and that such activity constitutes a commercial transaction that should be judged under rules governing commercial speech. Those rules offer less protection than First Amendment rights.

The judge rejected that argument, saying that while the city apparently regards "an assembly of people as an economic commodity, this court does not. Under such a view, fliers for political rallies, religious literature promoting church attendance, or similar forms of expression would constitute commercial speech merely because they assemble listeners for the speaker."

The judge added that the law would compel centers to "speak certain messages or face significant fines and/or closure of their facilities." The centers would have faced fines ranging from $200 to $2,000, and closure for three or more separate violations in one year.

Heil of the ACLJ praised the judge's decision: "This law, which forces pregnancy care centers to adopt and express views about abortion and contraception that they strongly disagree with, is constitutionally flawed." The ACLJ helped work on the case, along with the Alliance Defense Fund and the Catholic Lawyers Association. The local attorney arguing the case was M. Todd Parker-a graduate of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis-of Moskowitz & Book, LLC in New York City.

City officials said they would appeal the ruling, and Quinn lamented that the court failed to "protect pregnant women." Pro-life advocates hope the ruling will help defend unborn children in a city where 41 percent of pregnancies end in abortion-a rate nearly twice the national average.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD.

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