On June 26, the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 ruling in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra. The case concerns whether crisis pregnancy centers can be forced by California’s law, the Reproductive FACT Act, to advertise abortion and contraceptive services to their patients. The Court held in favor of the California crisis pregnancy centers, stating that the notice requirement “likely violated the First Amendment” because requiring them to advertise abortion, “the very practice petitioners are devoted to opposing...alters the content of their speech.”
When I first saw the headlines that the Court had ruled in favor of crisis pregnancy centers, I was thrilled. After all, I am an attorney working for a Christian public policy organization on First Amendment issues that impact ministries. I also direct an initiative called Sacred Sector that is dedicated to protecting and empowering faith-based nonprofits to advocate for their freedom to fully live out their sacred missions in everything they do, including speech.
But my reaction to this Supreme Court opinion is also deeply personal. I am very happily five months pregnant with my first child. My husband and I planned for our baby; we are financially stable, and we have a wealth of support through family, friends, coworkers and our faith community.
Yet there are so many women who find themselves pregnant when it is not planned or when they don’t have a supportive partner. Many don’t have the financial, material, spiritual or relational resources to support another human life. Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) offer a powerful, and in many ways deeply counter-cultural, message of hope. Their very reason for existence is to offer holistic, person-centered — and often specifically Christ-centered — alternatives to pregnant women who may otherwise believe abortion is their only way out.
NIFLA v. Becerra is not just about legal technicalities and procedural hoop-jumping. It’s a case that speaks to the heart of what it means to be a woman in today’s increasingly diverse and pluralistic society. With so many options available — evident even in the brands of toothpaste available, or the ability to have nearly anything we want delivered to our door — it’s reasonable that American women would desire a similar breadth of options in vital services associated with pregnancy.
As Christians, we are called to lift up and protect the most vulnerable members of society, and this includes women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy. Should we not also protect their freedom to seek services that are spiritually informed and also tailored to their particular parenting desires, even if it is the decision to place their child in another family’s loving care? NIFLA v. Becerra deals directly with the question of whether pregnancy clinics should be allowed to flourish, offering their distinctive, life-affirming alternatives to abortion services. It is vital that we protect the capacity of diverse organizations, especially those representing minority and unpopular beliefs, to continue to offer their highly particularized services to those who seek them out in the community.
Yet California’s FACT Act was an attempt to remove CPCs as a vital alternative. The FACT Act stated that a licensed crisis pregnancy center would be required to provide all patients with free information about free or low-cost family planning, prenatal and abortion services offered through the state. Although not all crisis pregnancy centers qualify as licensed medical clinics, those that do are often required to share information about services that is antithetical to their very existence. CPCs are organizations, often faith-based, that help women to choose life for their unborn children. Crisis pregnancy centers often also provide vulnerable women with material support, parenting education, spiritual guidance, referrals for social services and post-abortion counseling, among other services.
As Mark Rienzi, President of Becket Law, which filed an amicus brief in this case, stated: “Crisis pregnancy centers like NIFLA serve women and children according to their religious mission, and California should respect that.” Emma Green, writing for The Atlantic, echoed a similar sentiment in describing the arguments of the crisis pregnancy centers against the FACT Act: “Many of the centers have a religious mission, and many of their employees and volunteers are drawn to their work because of their faith. California had violated First Amendment rights of these people, they [the crisis pregnancy centers] said, because it compelled them to speak in violation of their consciences.”
In its recent decision, the Court made it clear that the FACT Act unfairly singled out crisis pregnancy centers and forced them to advertise services that contradict their very reason for existence.
Unfortunately, while the FACT Act recognized the capacity of crisis pregnancy centers to reach vulnerable populations, it ignored their unique identity as nongovernmental organizations, and instead tried to employ these clinics as mouthpieces for the government. As Pamela Palumbo, CEO of the Pregnancy Clinic Ministry, located in Maryland, said, “For the most part, the general public doesn’t realize the large impact of free services that crisis pregnancy centers offer that come at no cost to the government. For many pregnancy clinics, if we were forced to advertise for abortions, we would have hard decisions to make between advertising abortions and continuing to serve the unique needs of our communities.”
The real shame here is that, abortion policy aside, in many ways the state of California does seem to care about providing vulnerable women and families with resources to thrive. In this way, the state of California actually shares a core value with CPCs: the belief that women should be supported through their pregnancies and into early stages of parenthood. It’s evident in other legislation, like the New Parent Leave Act in California enacted in early 2018. This act allows employees and employers with 20 or more employees within 75 miles to be eligible for job-protected bonding time. California also increased wage replacement rates under the State Disability Insurance and Paid Family Leave to either 60 percent or 70 percent, depending on income. This is good news for California’s families, and it demonstrates that they recognize the value in supporting families and parents.
Because CPCs connect pregnant women to related resources, such as prenatal care and housing support, it means they are a natural conduit for empowering the economic agency of this population. There is a real opportunity for CPCs to empower women to negotiate for on-the-job accommodations, that allow them to remain employed, and thus make it more likely for them to consider keeping their babies.
We do a disservice to the pregnant women we are called to care for if we limit their options, and we do a disservice to faith-based service providers if we limit their ability to live out their faith-based missions.
Yet, now that the Court has ruled in favor of crisis pregnancy clinics, there is hope yet that California, and other states, will see the value of CPCs in supporting healthy pregnancies, healthy babies and healthy families. Several months ago, my husband and I found ourselves staring in awe at an ultrasound screen — we were seeing our baby! We heard the heartbeat, and could see the tiny body, with all its vital organs, already developing. We already knew we were having a baby, but the ultrasound made that much more real. We were lucky enough to choose our care providers for this pregnancy based on our own values, unique needs and the types of services we wanted to support our journey to parenthood. It is my hope that other women, so many of whom feel overwhelmed and distressed by what the future may hold, would be able to seek the kinds of distinctive care and spiritually-rooted support offered from thousands of CPCs around the country. As a pregnant woman, as a religious freedom advocate and as a Christian, I pray that we are creating a world for our children where distinctive, faith-shaped services remain free to serve vulnerable women and babies.
-Chelsea Bombino is the Director of Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. Sacred Sector empowers organizations and emerging leaders in the faith-based sector to integrate their public policy engagement, organizational practices and public positioning to holistically live our their sacred missions. Chelsea lives outside of Baltimore, MD, with her husband Josh.