Court blocks Illinois law penalizing anti-abortion pregnancy centers

The law, signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week, bans the use of misinformation to interfere with abortion or emergency contraception access and imposes fines up to $50,000.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker participates in a debate with Republican gubernatorial challenger, state Sen. Darren Bailey, at the WGN9 studios, Oct. 18, 2022, in Chicago

Gov. J.B Pritzker said he’s confident the courts will uphold an Illinois law allowing fines against crisis pregnancy centers, which often pop up near abortion facilities, if they disseminate misleading or untruthful information.

AP file

ROCKFORD — A federal judge has blocked a new Illinois law that allows the state to penalize anti-abortion pregnancy centers if they use deception to interfere with patients seeking the procedure.

U.S. District Judge Iain Johnston said Thursday the new law “is painfully and blatantly a violation of the First Amendment.”

The law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week bans anti-abortion pregnancy centers, often referred to as “crisis pregnancy centers,” from using “misinformation, deceptive practices, or misrepresentation” to interfere with access to abortion services or emergency contraception. Violators faced fines of up to $50,000.

The bill was championed by Attorney General Kwame Raoul. The law allows the state office of the attorney general to investigate complaints against pregnancy centers using questionable tactics and strengthens the attorney general’s authority to prosecute incidences of consumer fraud in such cases.

Pritzker said he’s confident the law will ultimately be upheld.

“I’m disappointed that the far right is interfering with the ability for women to access safe medical care without deception or lies,” Pritzker said in a statement. “This law is constitutional, and I am confident that the law will ultimately be found constitutional and we’ll continue to work alongside Attorney General Raoul to ensure Illinois patients are protected from misinformation.”

Johnston heard more than four hours of testimony from anti-abortion advocates during an emergency hearing Thursday afternoon. They said the law has threatened their rights to free speech and expression and their ability to distribute literature that identifies alternatives to abortion.

Kevin Rilott, director of the Rockford Family Initiative and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said before the law, as many as 100 people attended regular prayer vigils. After the law passed, Rilott said the number of prayer vigil attendees dropped to about 30.

“It’s going to stop us from offering mothers a choice,” Rilott said.

Attorney Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based not-for-profit law firm that represented the plaintiffs, said “It was very heartening to know that the judge recognized that our clients are facing a credible threat, that their speech is being chilled, and that’s really important.

“No matter which side of the abortion issue you’re on, we don’t silence speech,” Breen added. “The judge made that point very clearly today.”

Jennifer Welch, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said she was “frustrated” by Johnston’s ruling.

“For decades, crisis pregnancy centers have targeted our patients using deceptive and false practices,” Welch said in a statement. “Often crisis pregnancy centers provide misleading and medically inaccurate information, sometimes deliberately misdiagnosing patients or misdating their pregnancies so people think they have more time to decide about abortion or that they are past the time when they can have an abortion.”

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