MANHATTAN (CN) – One day before it was set to take effect, a federal judge blocked a law that would have forced some Christian-run pregnancy centers to post signs saying they have no doctors on-site and don’t give advice about abortions or birth control.
In a statement, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn vowed to appeal.
“The court’s decision is deeply disappointing and is a disservice to women,” Quinn said. “We will not waver in our fight for New York City women and we will immediately appeal today’s ruling.”
Passed by the New York City Council in March, Local Law 17 was enacted to prevent the centers’ “deceptive practices” and to protect public health and make sure the information the centers collect are kept private.
“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 recent hearing, 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, according to lawyer Robin Binder.
She added that more than 30 facilities with similar appearances and services may be operating in New York City, all without licensed medical staff. About 20 would have been affected by the law, which would have become effective on July 14.
In granting an injunction, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III wrote that the law would have violated the centers’ free speech rights.
“Here, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that Local Law 17 will compel them to speak certain messages or face significant fines and/or closure of their facilities,” Pauley wrote. “This is unquestionably a direct limitation on speech.”
A lawyer for the facilities praised the injunction in a press statement.
“This order keeps the city from enforcing a law that is specifically designed to deter pregnant women from receiving the help they need to make fully informed choices about their pregnancy while this lawsuit goes forward,” wrote Matthew Bowman of the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian advocacy group. “The order also means that the court is likely to find the ordinance unconstitutional.”
Despite granting their request, Pauley blasted the pregnancy centers for their deceptive practices.
“Unlicensed ultrasound technicians operating in pseudo-medical settings can spawn significant harms to pregnant, at-risk women who believe they are receiving medical care,” Judge Pauley wrote. “Plaintiffs’ categorical denial of the existence of any such deception – and refusal to acknowledge the potential misleading nature of certain conduct – feigns ignorance of the obvious.”
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.”
Pauley called the Civil Liberties Union’s defense of Local Law 17 “puzzling,” given the organization’s usual concern for First Amendment rights.
The NYCLU defended its stance in its amicus brief by saying that the law would have imposed no free speech burden, since it only required disclosures of factual information, not opinion.
Unconvinced, Pauley suggested other measures to curb the centers’ deceptive practices while sidestepping constitutional issues.
“[T]he City controls the right-of-way and could erect a sign on public property outside each pregnancy service center encouraging pregnant women to consult with a licensed medical provider,” the order states. “Such alternatives would convey the City’s message and be less burdensome on Plaintiffs’ speech.”
In a footnote, he added, “The City is also perfectly capable of conveying its message through a public service advertising campaign.”
Additionally, Pauley said that the city could initiate criminal anti-fraud prosecutions against deceptive facilities.
“Such prosecutions offer a less restrictive alternative to imposing speech obligations on private speakers,” the order states.
Pauley offered that the city could also lobby for a state law requiring licensing to operate ultrasounds, which he said are currently unregulated in all but two states.
“Of all of the services provided by Plaintiffs, ultrasounds are the most potentially deceptive: a woman visiting a facility that performs and/or interprets ultrasounds could reasonably form the impression that she has received medical treatment,” the order states. “However, by permitting ultrasound examinations to be performed only by licensed professionals, the City could regulate the manner in which those examinations are conducted and curb any manipulative use.”
Quinn called the judge’s proposed fixes “completely unworkable” and said they “would create even more legal problems.”
Her colleague, Council Member Jessica Lappin, added flatly, “The judge got it wrong.”