Montgomery anti-abortion pregnancy center disclaimer law is unconstitutional, federal court rules

Posted on June 28, 2012

Washington Post, June 28, 2012 by

A federal appeals court has struck down a controversial Montgomery County health regulation that requires anti-abortion pregnancy centers to provide a health disclaimer to patients.

The regulation, which was approved by the Montgomery County Council in 2010, required the centers to make two declarations: First, they do not have licensed medical professionals on staff. Second, the county encourages women to find “a licensed health care provider.”

Centro Tepeyac Silver Spring Women’s Center, an anti-abortion pregnancy center in Silver Spring, sued the county within months, saying its free-speech rights were violated. On Wednesday, a panel of judges for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond agreed.

“To be sure, Montgomery County is entitled to believe that pregnancy is first and foremost a medical condition, but it may not compel unwilling speakers to express that view,” Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote in his majority opinion, which Judge G. Steven Agee joined. Niemeyer added that pregnancy centers were being “singled out for disfavored treatment.”

In his minority opinion, Judge Robert King disagreed, saying the appeals court should uphold the ruling of a lower court that partially struck down the law. A judge for the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt ruled that only the second statement was unconstitutional.

Because of the lawsuit, county officials have not started implementing or enforcing the law. County spokesman Patrick Lacefield said in an e-mail that the county is studying the ruling, and county officials say they are considering whether to file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The panel of judges on Wednesday also declared a similar Baltimore ordinance unconstitutional. The city has not enforced the law, and it is weighing legal options for appeal, a spokesman, Ryan O’Doherty, said in an e-mail.

“The law itself would not have been necessary if there were not serious and compelling evidence and testimony that the centers provided false and misleading medical information to vulnerable women,” he added.

Abortion rights supporters have argued that the centers provide misleading and false information to dissuade women from having abortions. And a minority congressional report in 2006 found that many federally funded anti-abortion pregnancy centers were incorrectly telling women that abortions result in an increased risk of breast cancer, infertility and deep psychological trauma.

Centro Tepeyac and other pregnancy centers in the county say they provide much needed support for pregnant women. They added that they have not received any complaints from their patients and that they are not government funded.

Posted in: Maryland