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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Doctor-Free Pregnancy Centers Must Admit That

MANHATTAN (CN) - Christian-run pregnancy centers in New York City do not have a First Amendment right to avoid informing women that they do not have medical staff on-site, the 2nd Circuit ruled.

Such notices need not, however, state that centers do not provide or give referrals for abortion, emergency contraception or prenatal care, according to the ruling.

The New York City Council passed Local Law 17 in March 2011 to prevent "deceptive practices," protect public health and ensure the privacy of any information the centers collect.

"Some pregnancy services centers have engaged in conduct that wrongly leads clients to believe that they have received reproductive health care and counseling from a licensed medical provider," the statute states.

At a hearing in June of that year, city lawyers said the centers go to great lengths to maintain a clinical setting.

Clerks collect personal and insurance information in the waiting room, consultations take place on examination tables with stirrups, and scrub-suited consultants give free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, city lawyer Robin Binder said at the time.

She estimated that more than 30 facilities with similar appearances and services, all without licensed medical staff, might be operating in New York City. Slated to take effect on July 14, the law would have affected about 20 such centers.

The Evergreen Association claimed on behalf of those centers that the mandatory notices required under the law constituted impermissibly "coerced speech."

Hours before it became active, U.S. District Judge William Pauley granted them an injunction.

New York City Council Christine Quinn immediately vowed to appeal, and her colleague, Council Member Jessica Lappin, added flatly, "The judge got it wrong."

On Friday, a divided three-judge panel the 2nd Circuit agreed with that assessment.

The majority opinion, written by Judge Rosemary Pooler, found that the law's reference to "pregnancy service centers," or PSCs, was not too vague to pass constitutional muster.

"The requirement of an 'appearance of a licensed medical facility,' combined with the listed factors, is enough to give notice to regulated facilities and curtail arbitrary enforcement," the opinion states.

Forcing these centers to inform visitors about the availability of on-site medical staff provides "the least restrictive means to ensure that a woman is aware of whether a particular pregnancy services center has a licensed medical provider at the time that she first interacts with it," Pooler added.

The same was not true of mandatory disclosures that the centers do not provide abortion, emergency contraception, or prenatal care or referrals, the majority found.

Nor could the city justify a notice stating that "the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene encourages women who are or who may be pregnant to consult with a licensed," the court found.

Calling Local Law 17 a "bureaucrat's dream," Judge Richard Wesley's dissent agreed with the lower court's finding of vagueness and preferred to scrap the whole thing.

"It may well be that some PSCs lull pregnant women into making uninformed decisions about their health," Wesley wrote. "The city has an interest in preventing impostors from posing as healthcare workers and in making sure that misinformation is not directed at a vulnerable class of poor or uninformed women. However, the city does not have a right to sweep all those who, for faith-based reasons, think that abortion is not the right choice in with those who would defraud or intentionally mislead women making this important and personal decision."

Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the law offices representing the centers, said in a statement that they are "evaluating their options for appeal."

The New York Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, celebrated the decision.

"We are gratified by the court's decision to uphold important protections for women in New York City," NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. "This decision recognizes that the law was carefully crafted simultaneously to respect First Amendment rights and to protect women against deceptive practices."

Meanwhile, Quinn's successor as council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, called it only a partial victory.

"While we are disappointed that the Second Circuit struck down some disclosure requirements for Pregnancy Service Centers, the provision that was upheld will help to protect pregnant women across the five boroughs," Viverito said in a statement.

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