A Supreme Court victory this term could backfire on anti-abortion rights activists in the future, according to legal experts.
On Tuesday, justices heard arguments in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, and if the court rules to protect crisis pregnancy centers from having to publicize abortion services available elsewhere, the decision could also jeopardize laws backed by anti-abortion groups that require abortion providers to discuss alternatives to the procedure.
"If one decides this case based on the principle that the government cannot compel someone to say something they are opposed to, then I think all of those laws are challengeable," said Wendy Mariner, a professor of health law at Boston University, to CALmatters.
Additionally, the case may make crisis pregnancy centers, many of which are faith-based, appear to care more about the message they send than the women they serve. They could win the right to remove all references to abortion, but lose public support.
"By winning a case based on speech as advocacy, pregnancy centers could backslide in their efforts to be seen as professional, legitimate medical resources for mothers-to-be," The Atlantic reported.
National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra stems from California's Reproductive FACT Act, which was enacted in 2015.
The law requires pregnancy clinics licensed to provide ultrasounds and pregnancy tests to "post notices to inform their patients that free or low-cost abortions are available and provide the telephone number of a state agency," according to SCOTUSblog.
Additionally, under the law, "centers that are not licensed to provide medical services — but try to support pregnant women by supplying them with diapers and formula, for example — must include disclaimers in their advertisements to make clear, in up to 13 languages, that their services do not include medical help," SCOTUSblog reported.
Soon after the law took effect, a group of more than 100 crisis pregnancy centers sued the state of California, asserting that the required abortion-related notices violate their free speech rights.
The law forces centers that want "to help women choose life point the way to an abortion," said Kristen Waggoner, senior vice president of the U.S. legal division for Alliance Defending Freedom, to NPR. Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law firm, represents the crisis pregnancy centers in the case.
California leaders and others who support abortion rights argue that the law ensures pregnant women have all the information they need.
"We're simply trying to make sure the recipient of health care information or advice understands exactly what he or she is entitled to in terms of services and that the information is accurate," said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to NPR.
A federal district court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Becerra's argument. The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last year.
During oral arguments on March 20, conservative and liberal justices appeared concerned that California lawmakers had unfairly targeted pregnancy clinics that opposed abortion rights, the Associated Press reported.
"When you put all this together, you get a very suspicious pattern," Justice Samuel Alito said.
Apparent support for California's arguments was more about the state of abortion regulations across the country than the validity of lawmakers' concerns, USA Today reported.
"There are pro-choice states, and there are pro-life states," Justice Stephen Breyer said. "If a pro-life state can tell a doctor you have to tell people about adoption, why can't a pro-choice state tell a doctor, a facility, whatever it is, you have to tell people about abortion?"
As his remarks illustrate, the case is about more than the free speech rights of crisis pregnancy centers. It's about who controls access to abortion-related information.
"This case won't stop (crisis pregnancy centers) from trying to persuade women against having an abortion, and it won't stop pro-choice activists from working to shut them down. But it could set the guard rails for how blue-state governments go after pro-life organizations — and how forthright those groups have to be about their agenda," The Atlantic reported.
As participants in abortion debates argue over what information should have to be shared, they sometimes lose track of the actual experience of pregnant women, health experts said. The case heard Tuesday made it to the Supreme Court before the implications of the law were clear.
"For a woman who is pregnant, and is interested in obtaining abortion care, having an experience where she may feel judged or shamed for considering abortion may have psychological and stigmatizing consequences," said Katrina Kimport, a University of California, San Francisco, professor who researches crisis pregnancy centers, to The Atlantic. "But we don't have evidence that it actually changes her mind."
Justices are expected to issue their ruling in the case by the end of June.