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Anti-Abortion Centers Seek Relief From CA Law

SAN DIEGO (CN) - A group of San Diego anti-abortion health clinics sought injunctive relief Thursday in Federal Court to allow them to skirt California's new reproductive-services disclosure law.

U.S. District Court Judge John Houston heard from plaintiffs National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, Pregnancy Care Center and Fallbrook Pregnancy Resource Center as to why the groups should not be subject to complying with Assembly Bill 775 - the Reproductive FACT Act - during pending litigation.

The clinics asked Houston to restrain State Attorney General Kamala Harris, San Diego County Counsel Thomas Montgomery, El Cajon City Attorney Morgan Foley and Gov. Jerry Brown from enforcing the act, which the clinics claim infringes on their free speech and freedom of religion.

Other litigation filed by clinics in Northern California did not hold up in Federal Court, and appeals to the Ninth Circuit were rejected.

The FACT Act, which stands for Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency, was signed into law by Brown last October and went into effect on Jan. 1.

The law requires a licensed health center to disseminate information to women informing them of state programs that provide immediate free or low-cost family planning services, prenatal care and abortions. It also requires unlicensed centers to indicate they are not, in fact, licensed as medical facilities from California.

The information can be distributed one of three ways: through posting it at the clinic, printing and handing out information to patients, or by posting the information online.

The law authorizes the state attorney general, county counsel or city attorney to bring litigation against facilities who fail to comply. Health centers cannot be criminally prosecuted for violating the act, however, and are only subject to civil penalties.

Violators will be fined $500 on the first offense and $1,000 thereafter.

The health centers claim the law targets crisis pregnancy centers specifically, but it applies to all healthcare facilities in the state.

Harris and the other defendants claimed the health centers' motion does not hold up because the state, county or city have not threatened enforcement or action that will be taken against the groups. The health centers have not indicated a formal plan to sidestep the law, either. They have merely said they plan to not comply.

Montgomery and Foley both sought dismissal on grounds that neither the city nor the county enacted the state-created FACT Act.

The Family and Life Advocates said they would drop litigation filed against the city and county if the municipalities definitively agreed to not seek action against the health centers for noncompliance.

"We would be glad to relieve the city and county of any litigation, but they only said it's likely they won't enforce while the case is pending, instead of definitively saying they won't enforce," Matthew Bowman, attorney for the health centers, said.

Montgomery's attorney, Thomas Bunton, disagreed, pointing to a memo in the county's court filing that claimed the county would not seek to enforce the law.

Bunton said any enforcement would most likely come from the state.

Houston remained even-keeled throughout the hearing, often playing devil's advocate while reminding counsel of the important and serious issue at hand.

"We're dealing with critical healthcare decisions between a patient and doctor which the state has a significant interest in," he said.

The judge said it is important to get the proper information to women who need it when making a decision on whether or not to go through with a pregnancy.

"Isn't that doing a disservice to that doctor-patient personal relationship?" Houston said. "That patient is going to rely on what the doctor says to make a quick decision in one to two months. Doesn't the state have a unique interest there?"

He also pointed out that the health centers' claim about the state infringing on their First Amendment rights might not hold, noting doctors infrequently sue based on First Amendment issues when they face malpractice litigation.

The Family and Life Advocates claimed providing the disclosure to patients up front will change the nature of the relationship between their employees and the women who go to them for help.

The health centers also said that, while the law may have been created to address "bad apple" clinics that misinform women, they still have to comply with it even though "there's nothing bad happening."

"Whether you're a wrongdoer or not, everyone has to comply with this," Bowman said.

Anthony Hakl, attorney for Harris and Gov. Brown, said the FACT Act "would survive even the strictest scrutiny," and the law is not an "anti-message" to the clinics but merely informs women what services are available to them.

"Pregnancy is a time-sensitive condition and women who seek services need to know information immediately. It's that one-on-one communication that's important," he said.

Hakl noted that the clinics are not barred from saying anything and "remain free to say whatever they want up to and including disparaging the notice."

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