Column: The Supreme Court puts religion-based dishonesty above the health and welfare of vulnerable pregnant women
In 2014, a recent high school graduate named Dania Flores, posing as a pregnant teenager, visited 43 crisis pregnancy centers in California.
What kind of care would they offer? How medically competent would they be?
As Flores discovered, most crisis pregnancy centers are thinly disguised anti-abortion Christian ministries designed to steer women away from abortion. In the process they spew misinformation, if not downright lies. You will never hear in a crisis pregnancy center that a woman is far, far more likely to die of childbirth-related causes than abortion, which has an infinitesimal complication rate.
At every clinic, Flores said, she was told that abortion leads to breast cancer. (It does not.) She was told that birth control pills cause headaches and, as she told me, “put hormones in your body you don’t need.”
She was told that condoms “have a bunch of little holes you might not know about.” In two clinics, staffers told her how guilty they felt about their own abortions. During a free vaginal ultrasound, a technician in Mountain View mistook her IUD for a fetus and told her it did not have a heartbeat.
Flores’ undercover work, for NARAL Pro-Choice California, helped lead to a state law that required crisis pregnancy centers to inform patients that the state has public programs providing free or low-cost family planning — from contraception to yes, abortion. (Which, let us not forget, is safe and legal.)
On Monday, by a 5-4 vote, a supremely misguided U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the California law, finding that it violated the free speech rights of the very folks at crisis pregnancy centers who use deception and shame to persuade women to have children they may not want or be ready for.
How is this possible? Laws that forbid lawyers from lying to clients are constitutional.
Doctors, the court has ruled, can be forced to read untrue anti-abortion messages crafted by legislatures under the guise of giving medical information.
But when the state of California tries to look out for its pregnant citizens by requiring crisis centers to actually inform them of their rights to various free services, it’s an untenable affront to free expression, according to Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion.
To paraphrase Emma Gonzalez, the eloquent anti-gun activist from Parkland, Fla., I call BS.
“The court thinks this law is an attempt to trample the 1st Amendment by targeting crisis pregnancy centers,” said Michele Bratcher Goodwin, director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at the UC Irvine School of Law. “But if the court was ideologically positioned to actually take seriously the health, values and concerns of women, it might have read differently what this state has done.”
Abortion-friendly California has the lowest maternal mortality rate in the country. And there is a reason for that: California values the lives and autonomy of women. It respects the important role that family planning plays in their emotional, physical and financial health.
We seem to be in a moment where a majority of justices on our nation’s highest court believe that a person’s religious belief is to be honored regardless of the harm it inflicts on others. (Particularly if the others are gay and/or women.)
The Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for two men is Exhibit A. Yes, it was a narrow ruling by the court, and applicable only to the facts of that particular case, but let’s face it, the decision gave bigots a big boost.
In 2014’s Hobby Lobby case, the court ruled that closely held corporations can deny their female employees contraception coverage, whether their religious objections are based on fact or mere conjecture. So, for instance, even if a boss wrongly believes that Plan B, a form of emergency birth control, works by inducing an abortion, he or she can refuse to cover that form of birth control. Never mind that Plan B works only to prevent conception, it’s the belief that counts.
“This court has not been friendly to the constitutional and legal interests of women,” said Goodwin, in what may be the understatement of the decade.
On Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is 81, announced he would retire this summer.
The news has given President Trump the chance to fulfill his campaign promise to appoint Supreme Court judges who would vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade. It has given pro-choice groups a serious case of heartburn.
For the last few decades, as conservative states have chipped away at abortion rights, imposing laws and heaping burdens on women who want only to have control over their own lives, abortion rights advocates were able to take some comfort knowing that Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, has often demonstrated a willingness to support them.
He sided with abortion rights in the landmark 1992 ruling Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, which mostly upheld Roe vs. Wade, but allowed states to impose some restrictions on abortion as long as they did not pose an “undue burden” on pregnant women seeking abortions.
In yet another landmark abortion ruling, 2016’s Whole Women’s Health vs. Hellerstedt, Kennedy voted with the majority to overturn a Texas law that imposed onerous (and specious) requirements on abortion clinics that was nothing but a transparent effort to drive them out of business.
We may be on the brink of a perilous reversal of women’s civil rights.
The problem with going backward is that women will always have unwanted pregnancies. Abortion can be legal and safe, or it can be illegal and dangerous.
Either way, it will never go away.
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