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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Abortion foe seeks First Amendment immunity for ‘abortion reversal’ offers

Heartbeat International faces claims it misleads pregnant people in California to take "abortion reversal" treatments, but says that it has First Amendment immunity to offer such services.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — An anti-abortion nonprofit told a California judge Tuesday the Golden State's protection of the rights to reproductive health care gives it the First Amendment right to offer help to Californians who want to “reverse abortions.”

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Michael Markman will rule on a motion to quash in a case questioning whether anti-abortion nonprofits can invoke the First Amendment and California’s constitutional protection of pregnant people to offer what they call “abortion reversal.” He also must rule on warring motions for demurrer from the state Attorney General’s office and defendants Heartbeat International and RealOptions.

California sued Heartbeat International, a nonprofit Christian association of pregnancy resource centers, medical clinics, maternity homes and adoption agencies in 2023. State Attorney General Rob Bonta says Heartbeat targeted Californians with so-called abortion pill reversal treatment and calls its statements about what it offers “false and misleading.” 

The nonprofit says on its website that it works to reach “those who are abortion-vulnerable” and offers a 24-hour call line. It opposes abortion and birth control and promotes “God's plan for our sexuality” which it defines as “marriage between one man and one woman” and “sexual integrity/sexual purity before marriage and sexual integrity faithfulness within marriage.”

Heartbeat and RealOptions claim taking their “abortion reversal” pills after using mifepristone — the first drug in a two-step medical abortion — can reverse the abortion. Both organizations continue to advertise and promote abortion pill reversal, saying it can be safe and effective even after taking misoprostol — the second part of the two-drug abortion care regimen — or when taken over 72 hours after taking the first dose of mifepristone.

Paul Jonna, attorney for Heartbeat, told Judge Markman in court Tuesday that if the court rules in the state’s favor, then Heartbeat could be subject to the government’s oversight in every state. Jonna said that Heartbeat did not specifically target Californians and that its materials reach people nationwide.

Markman disagreed, saying that the state’s tentative ruling motion shows Heartbeat’s relationships with anti-abortion groups which only operate in California. 

Jonna said that the court must “take a critical look at the rights of women to bear children, and nonprofits to help them free of charge.” He said Heartbeat helps women who felt pressured to get abortions and that California is denying people the choice to give birth, while suppressing what he called “unpopular ideas or information.”

Jonna quoted the state constitution’s right to choose whether or not to give birth. He said Heartbeat has immunity because it connects pregnant people who want to stop an in-progress abortion to medical help.

He also said that there is a legitimate scientific debate over the science of reversing abortion pill treatments which the court should stay out of. He compared the treatments to “CPR for an unborn baby" and cited peer-reviewed studies on the topic.

“The courts are not well equipped to referee unsettled matters of medical debate,” he said.

The state says that there are no double-blind studies to prove the efficacy of abortion reversal treatment. The attorney general says Heartbeat made statements of fact without support from reputable peer-reviewed data, such as that abortion reversal medication can reverse abortions after 72 hours and has saved thousands of lives. 

According to Bonta, Heartbeat has stated that abortion pill reversal has a 64% to 68% success rate, which he said is lies and deception. Heartbeat pulls its 64% statistic from a 2018 report Bonta in the lawsuit calls unreliable.

The state argues that there is no constitutional right to false commercial speech, especially if it leads to encouraging people to undergo a procedure not proven as effective.

Markman said that he will rule within the next week, with guidance on the next steps in the lawsuit. 

California's claims against the defendants include violations of the state's False Advertising Law and Unfair Competition Law. Bonta says Californians have the right to access safe and legal abortions, the right to facts about the procedure and the right to make informed decisions. He wants Markman to order the defendants to stop the false and misleading statements and impose a penalty of up to $2,500 per violation against each group.

The case underlines California’s inequities in health care, with many rural areas offering only anti-abortion advisers despite the state positioning itself as a safe haven for pregnant people seeking comprehensive medical services including abortion. Bonta said there are more crisis pregnancy centers, like those which RealOptions operates and which don't provide abortions or even comprehensive reproductive health care, in California than abortion provider facilities.

Bonta advises people to visit websites like abortion.ca.gov for accurate information.

Follow @nhanson_reports
Categories / Courts, First Amendment, Health, Politics

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