The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a law requiring anti-abortion centers in California to inform pregnant clients that they could obtain the procedure elsewhere was likely unconstitutional, in a closely watched case on free speech.
The justices ruled 5-4 to overturn a lower court decision in the case, saying in the majority opinion that California's notice law "imposes an unduly burdensome disclosure requirement" on the clinics to express an opinion they did not share.
Anti-abortion groups had argued in March before the high court that the 2015 California law, backed by Democrats, violates their right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Critics say the centers use deceptive tactics to trick women into thinking they are entering an abortion clinic — in a bid to dissuade them from going through with the procedure.
Women with unplanned pregnancies who go to the facilities are encouraged to parent their babies or offer them for adoption, rather than end their pregnancies.
California's law requires such centers to clearly tell their clients whether they are able to practice medicine and whether health care professionals are on hand.
The facilities must also post notices providing information about public programs offering free or low-cost contraception, abortion and prenatal care.
The National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, an umbrella group for the non-profit facilities, as well as two such facilities in San Diego County, challenged the California law, saying it was crafted to target them for their anti-abortion views.
"Pro-life centers are now free from government harassment," Thomas Glessner, the institute's president, said after the ruling.
There is a strong religious element to the facilities involved in the case. For example, one called itself a "front line ministry" and said on its website that once women who come to the center "have accepted Christ we begin a discipleship program with them and contact a partner church to hand them off to."
President Donald Trump's administration hailed the decision as a victory for free speech. "Speakers should not be forced by their government to promote a message with which they disagree, and pro-life pregnancy centers in California should not be forced to advertise abortionand undermine the very reason they exist," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said.
U.S. House of Representatives Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called the ruling a "grave step backwards" for women's rights, adding that California should be able to protect people from "fake women's health centers" that provide biased information.
Ilyse Hogue, president of abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that Roe v. Wade, the high court's landmark 1973 decision establishing a woman's constitutional right toabortion, is more at risk than ever.
"One vote made all the difference today, and it could also be the only thing between upholding Roe or outlawing legal abortion in America," Hogue said.