On either side of the abortion issue, advocates and legislators have become so entrenched that they often lose sight of the constitutional forest for the trees. Consider two cases out of Colorado and New York that illustrate the lengths to which some will go to restrict speech about any choice they don’t like.
In April, we wrote about a Colorado law restricting the ability of physicians to discuss a treatment for women who are having second thoughts about a chemically induced abortion. That law limits prescribing progesterone, a popular method of reversing a chemical abortion. It forbids physicians from even informing pregnant women that such a treatment exists.
It’s essentially the inverse of legislative proposals in red states that would permit civil actions against anyone informing women about abortion options in other states. At Protect The 1st, we oppose any effort to gag physicians and other health care providers from informing patients about treatment options – particularly when it conflicts with closely held religious beliefs.
Such was the case with Bella Health, a Catholic healthcare clinic in Colorado that offers life-affirming care to pregnant women (among others). That includes offering progesterone.
With help from the Becket Fund, Bella Health sued the State of Colorado in federal court. Bella Health has now been granted a preliminary injunction barring implementation of the law and allowing the clinic to continue its work. U.S. District Court Judge Daniel D. Domenico wrote:
“There is no question whether [the law] burdens Bella Health’s free exercise of religion. It does. Bella Health considers it a religious obligation to provide treatment for pregnant mothers and to protect unborn life if the mother seeks to stop or reverse an abortion.”
Domenico further criticized the state for failing to even attempt to make the case for a compelling government interest, which is necessary for overcoming a strict scrutiny review. The fact is, which Domenico seemingly recognized, the law was a nakedly partisan response to recent developments on the national stage – an effort to punish those on the other side of this contentious issue by trampling over their First Amendment rights.
In a similar case out of New York, the state passed a law in 2022 authorizing the New York State Department of Health to conduct a study on “limited service pregnancy centers on the ability of women to obtain accurate, non-coercive health care information and timely access to a comprehensive range of reproductive and sexual health care services.” (“Limited service pregnancy” centers is how the state describes clinics that do not offer abortion services.)
The statute further permitted the state to demand “data and information” from any center that does not offer abortion services or referrals. That included Sisters of Life, a Catholic community of nuns who offer holistic care for women in crisis, often providing housing, maternity clothes, baby formula, and other necessities. Sisters of Life sued to overturn and enjoin enforcement of the law, rightfully concerned about the vast amount of sensitive personal data that would have be turned over – including, according to the complaint, “organizational funding; membership in umbrella organizations; services provided and most frequently sought; the number of women who access services, the geographic regions in which each woman resides, and ‘basic demographic information about each woman, including race, age, and marital status.’”
In more good news for the First Amendment, the Sisters dropped their lawsuit after reaching an agreement with the state stipulating that the state will not “take any enforcement action of any kind against Plaintiff based on Plaintiff’s nonresponse to or noncompliance with any survey, document request, or information request of any kind authorized by or issued by Defendant.” It’s a total surrender on the part of New York, which seems largely embarrassed by the whole ordeal.
State attorneys should be embarrassed. Regardless of your views on abortion, passing coercive laws to shut down speech and punish religious organizations makes a farce of the First Amendment. And while we should celebrate these victories, we must also remember that such threats to our foundational rights remain ever present – coming from the right as well as the left.