WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court seems likely to strike down a California law that mainly regulates anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.
Both conservative and liberal justices voiced skepticism Tuesday about the law that requires the centers to tell clients about the availability of contraception, abortion and pre-natal care, at little or no cost. Centers that are unlicensed also must post a sign that says so.
The centers say they are being singled out and forced to deliver a message with which they disagree. California says the law is needed to let poor women know all their options.
Similar laws also are being challenged in Hawaii and Illinois.
At different points in the arguments, liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor said they were troubled by aspects of the California law.
Kagan said it seemed that the state had “gerrymandered” the law, a term usually used in the context of redistricting, to target the anti-abortion centers. Sotomayor said there was at least one instance dealing with unlicensed centers that seemed “burdensome and wrong.”
Justice Samuel Alito, a likely vote for the centers, said the state’s criteria about which centers are covered by the law seemed to take only “pro-life clinics.”
“When you put all this together, you get a very suspicious pattern,” Alito said.
The outcome also could affect laws in other states that seek to regulate doctors’ speech.
In Louisiana, Texas and Wisconsin, doctors must display a sonogram and describe the fetus to most pregnant women considering an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. Similar laws have been blocked in Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma.
Doctors’ speech has also been an issue in non-abortion cases. A federal appeals court struck down parts of a 2011 Florida law that sought to prohibit doctors from talking about gun safety with their patients. Under the law, doctors faced fines and the possible loss of their medical licenses for discussing guns with patients.
In another lawsuit over regulating crisis pregnancy centers, a federal appeals court in New York struck down parts of a New York City ordinance, although it upheld the requirement for unlicensed centers to say that they lack a license.
The court has previously upheld requirements that doctors in abortion clinics must tell patients about alternatives to abortion.
“If a pro-life state can tell a doctor you have to tell people about adoption, why can’t a pro-choice state say you have to tell people about an abortion?” Justice Stephen Breyer asked Michael Farris, representing the centers.
Farris replied that the Supreme Court has recognized that doctors must obtain a patient’s informed consent about the risks and alternatives of medical procedures, including abortions.
The abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice California was a prime sponsor of the California law. NARAL contends that the centers mislead women about their options and try to pressure them to forgo abortion. Estimates of the number of crisis pregnancy centers in the U.S. run from 2,500 to more than 4,000, compared with fewer than 1,500 abortion providers, women’s rights groups said in a Supreme Court filing.
California’s law was challenged by the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, an organization with ties to 1,500 pregnancy centers nationwide and 140 in California.
Farris said the state is trying to compel the centers “to point the way toward abortion.”
Joshua Klein, California’s deputy solicitor general, said the state is trying to let a poor, pregnant woman who visits a crisis pregnancy center know that “her financial circumstance does not make her unable to access to alternative care.”
The justices suggested they could give a different reception to a law that required all pregnancy-related facilities to post the services they provide and those they don’t.