MANHATTAN (CN) – Christian-run health clinics for women tried to convince a federal judge to block New York City’s new disclosure law that would force them to post signs saying they have no licensed doctors on-site and will not give advice about abortions and birth control.
Local Law 17, which takes effect on July 14, affects 20 such centers, which offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. Lawyers representing five of these asked a federal judge to temporarily enjoin it before a trial to declare it unconstitutional.
Lawyers for the centers argued at a hearing Wednesday that the disclosures are “coerced speech,” while the city says that they are necessary for vulnerable and generally poor women, who might otherwise believe that the centers provide legitimate medical services at no cost.
City lawyer Robin Binder told U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III that the centers go to great lengths to create a clinical setting. She said that clerks collect personal and insurance information in the waiting room, and consultations take place on examination tables with stirrups, where scrub-suited consultants give free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds.
Lawyers for the centers pointed out that New York does not require licensing to operate an ultrasound.
Binder replied that many women do not know that.
An amicus brief filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union quotes a woman who testified before City Council after visiting one such center when she was 23 weeks pregnant.
According to the brief, the woman said she entered a center that resembled “every OBGYN office [she’d] ever been in,” before taking a pregnancy test she was told was “inconclusive.” She testified that a woman wearing medical scrubs performed a five-minute sonogram before declaring her fetus “healthy and perfect.”
Binder, the city lawyer, said that more than 30 centers with similar appearances and services may be operating in New York City, all without licensed medical staff.
The statute states that it was enacted to prevent the centers’ “deceptive practices” and protect public health.
“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. “Prenatal care, abortion and emergency contraception are all time sensitive services. Delay in accessing abortion or emergency contraception creates increased health risks and financial burdens.”
Attorney James H. Henderson Sr., of the Christian legal advocacy group American Center for Law and Justice, told the judge that the law a “grotesque violation” of his clients’ free-speech rights.
“It’s a message they do not wish to speak,” Henderson said. “There is no question that the city decided to put words in the mouths of these plaintiffs.”
Yet the New York Civil Liberties Union, the local branch of the organization known for defending the speech rights even of their ideological opposites, wrote in its brief that the law imposed no free-speech burden.
“To be clear, we would oppose a law that improperly forced a person to express approval of abortion or contraceptives. We would similarly oppose a law that improperly restricted one’s ability to persuade women not to have an abortion or use contraceptives, or to express their disapproval of abortion or contraceptives,” the brief states. “But [Local Law 17] does none of these things.”
The NYCLU’s defense of the law, however, did not appear to convince Judge Pauley, who pressed city lawyers on alternatives to Local Law 17 that can protect women who may be misled while sidestepping free-speech issues.
Pauley proposed criminally prosecuting people that impersonate physicians, imposing restrictions on operating ultrasounds and starting an ad campaign warning of deceptive clinics.
Binder, the city lawyer, wondered what such a hypothetical campaign would look like.
“Beware of facilities that look like medical facilities but aren’t?” Binder asked with exasperation.
Henderson pointed out that impersonating a doctor is a felony under New York law.
“Police officials can use existing statues to prevent fraud and deceit,” Henderson said.
But he denied that his clients were engaged in it, saying that feminine-hygiene products like tampons are considered “medical devices” by law. Even a first-aid kit, he said, could give the appearance of a medical facility, under the law.
Matthew Bowman, an attorney working for another conservative Christian organization called the Alliance Defense Fund, said that many states have different views about abortion and public health. He noted that informed-consent laws in several states obligate doctors to warn women about the cancer and health risks that can supposedly accompany an abortion.
The National Cancer Institute says that such a link has never been proven.
Sidestepping the abortion disclosure, Judge Pauley recommended the city mandate putting a sign outside the centers saying: “There is no licensed medical personnel on this site.”
Even that, Binder said, would not help women understand that the centers are designed to keep them from learning about their full medical options.
Henderson, striking a feminist posture, said the city’s position was “unseemly patronizing of women.”
He and Bowman had the last words, as Judge Pauley said he would reserve decision on the injunction for a later date.