WASHINGTON (BP)–Pro-life pregnancy help centers in New York City gained a victory July 13 when a federal judge blocked enforcement of an ordinance that requires them to post signs saying they do not perform abortions or refer women to abortion providers.
On the day before the law was to go into effect, Judge William Pauley issued a preliminary injunction, meaning the ordinance will not be enforced while the case proceeds in court.
The decision is the latest in a series of victories for pregnancy help centers against laws requiring the disclosure of services they do not provide.
Pregnancy help centers would suffer “irreparable harm” to their First Amendment rights under Local Law 17, Pauley said in his 22-page opinion for the Southern District of New York. In blocking enactment of the entire ordinance, Pauley said it is “unconstitutionally vague,” adding that the pregnancy centers had shown a likelihood of success in challenging it.
Pauley rejected New York City’s argument that the pregnancy centers’ speech is commercial because the centers provide commercially valuable goods and services, such as diapers, pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. Acceptance of that position “would represent a breathtaking expansion of the commercial speech doctrine,” Pauley wrote.
The law requires pregnancy help centers to inform clients that they do not provide abortions or abortion referrals and do not provide “emergency contraception” or referrals for the drug, also known as the “morning-after” pill. “Emergency contraception” works to restrict ovulation in a woman, but it also can act after conception, thereby causing an abortion by blocking implantation of a tiny embryo in the uterine wall.
The ordinance also requires centers to disclose if they have a licensed health-care provider on staff and if they provide prenatal care or refer for such care.
The law mandates centers make such disclosures on signs in their buildings, in advertising for their services and orally in person and by telephone.
Pro-life and pregnancy care center advocates applauded the ruling.
“What’s encouraging is that the court clearly understood that this measure is not only wrong, but violates the First Amendment rights of our clients,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents some pregnancy centers in the case.
The law “singled out and targeted pro-life advocates — crisis pregnancy centers — in New York City,” Sekulow said in a written statement. “The requirements were burdensome and, quite frankly, unconstitutional.”
Jeanneane Maxon, general counsel for Care Net, said the ordinance is “a classic example of viewpoint discrimination.” Care Net, a network of more than 1,100 pregnancy centers, is “hopeful that these centers will be fully protected by the final decision in this case,” she said in a written release.
New York, which adopted its ordinance in March, is at least the third city to pass a restrictive measure on pregnancy centers. Pauley’s decision made it the second city to lose in court over such an ordinance.
In January, a federal judge struck down a similar 2009 Baltimore, Md., ordinance as a violation of the centers’ free-speech rights. Austin, Texas, passed such a law in 2010.
In May, a federal court in Maryland blocked enforcement of part of a similar law in Montgomery County while the case proceeds.
Opponents of the laws charge they are discriminatory, since they do not require abortion clinics to post signs indicating what services they do not provide. Many pro-life pregnancy centers offer such free services as pregnancy tests, ultrasound exams, prenatal care, childbirth classes, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, abstinence education, post-abortion counseling and material assistance. Abortion clinics typically do not provide many of these services.
NARAL Pro-choice America, a leading abortion rights organization, has been spearheading the charge against pro-life pregnancy centers. It has accused them of deceptively advertising in online yellow page directories under such headings as “abortion services.”
Care Net and other pregnancy center organizations deny the accusations. Affiliates with Care Net and other national networks, such as Heartbeat International and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, abide by a document — titled “Commitment of Care and Competence” — in which they promise to advertise and communicate truthfully, according to Care Net.
Foes of the New York law described it as ironic in light of the city’s role as the country’s abortion capital. The city’s latest statistics showed 41 percent of pregnancies, apart from miscarriages, end in abortion, it was reported in January.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by BP associate editor Michael Foust.