Can the state compel an organization to proclaim a message that is the very antithesis of its mission?
On March 20, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that poses this question. National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra challenges a California law that requires pro-life pregnancy centers to provide information to women about how and where to obtain a free or low-cost abortion. The law targets these pregnancy centers and imposes a fine if they are found to be in noncompliance. In other words, AB 775—also known as the Reproductive FACT Act—forces organizations to violate their very reason for existence. It also undermines their ability to meet a vital need of the women of California by offering them a pro-life, pro-woman alternative to abortion.
The deeply pro-choice California legislature wants pro-life organizations and citizens to do free advertising on its and the abortion lobby’s behalf. Only a movement as insidious and overreaching as the sexual revolution would insist on drafting dissenters into its ranks. This episode also demonstrates the unmasked hypocrisy at play in the abortion movement: it is hard to imagine a scenario where progressives would adopt the position of forcing Planned Parenthood, for example, to advertise on behalf of pregnancy care centers. This law is deeply biased toward abortion at the expense of sound public policy and human dignity.
Targeting Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers
California’s Reproductive FACT Act takes aim at a vital resource in the pro-life movement. Pro-life pregnancy centers provide a link to needed medical care, encouragement, and support for expectant mothers facing an unplanned pregnancy. In these centers, pregnant women encounter a pro-life alternative to the culture of death that surrounds them. Staffed mostly by women, pregnancy centers provide a community that seeks to rally around these mothers and support them as they carry their babies to term. This support can take the form of counseling, medical services, material resources for the mother and child, and connections to additional social support services. Many pregnancy care centers are born of religious conviction, which means the California law in dispute makes the conflict not only one of free speech, but also religious liberty.
The law takes a targeted approach to compelling these organizations to act against their moral beliefs. It targets pregnancy centers and imposes a fine on them for failure to provide information to mothers about where to receive an abortion. In a culture that is so often marked by violence and a utilitarian view of human beings, this law places restrictions on the organizations that offer an alternative message.
Compelling Individuals to Violate Their Conscience
This court case centers around the ability of the state to compel individuals to act against their conscience. This is a fundamental overreach of state power on constitutional, moral, and religious grounds. Constitutionally, the courts have found that the state cannot compel an individual to profess governmental orthodoxy. As Chief Justice Robert H. Jackson put it in the case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” The right of every individual citizen—and of any association they form—to live out their beliefs is the foundation on which our constitutional democracy is based.
This law is problematic for all citizens, religious or not. Citizens of conscience should reject the claims of any state or institution that seeks to overstep its limited, temporal authority and force citizens to violate their consciences. The state has the authority over the temporal and earthly realm, but it does not hold sway in the spiritual and heavenly realms; it simply cannot compel what lies outside its authority. As Baptist John Leland put it in 1791, “If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let me be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise let me be free.” Leland’s words still ring true today. The individual’s ability to live out his or her convictions should be unfettered by the government, because it is the individual alone who will answer for those decisions. Any attempt to wrest this freedom and responsibility from a person or association is unjust. Since the issue of life’s dignity is rooted in profoundly moral and religious questions, it is inappropriate for the state to compel an organization’s viewpoint on such matters.
Denying Human Dignity
Not only does this case compel speech, it does so for the purposes of devaluing human life. The law asserts that over 60 percent of the births in California were publicly funded. It seeks to reduce this number by requiring facilities that provide family-planning or pregnancy-related services to inform all patients of the contraceptive and abortion services available in the state. The internal logic is that because these infants pose a significant financial burden on taxpayers, it is in the state’s best interest to ease that burden by limiting the number of pregnancies that continue on to birth.
The state’s position is clearly at odds with a robust view of human dignity. It is to combat this very Darwinian attitude that pregnancy centers exist. They create a culture of life that respects the intrinsic worth and dignity of women and children, even when it is unprofitable to do so. Unborn children and their mothers should be supported and encouraged to flourish, not pressured into the tragic violence of abortion.
Citizens must decry any attempt to place unjust restrictions on conscience, religious or not. The state of California does not possess the moral authority to implement this law. In fact, because it is a deeply unjust law, people of conscience may be justified in disobeying it.
This case should be a sign to all citizens—religious or not—of the insidious nature of this issue in our culture. This law exemplifies the pro-abortion stance taken by the state toward the unborn. Rather than applaud the choice of these mothers to bear their children and seek to provide for them, the law advances an agenda that reveals how wholly our society has internalized the Darwinian and death-dealing culture of abortion.
We must all affirm the innate, inviolable dignity of all individuals. This means that we must affirm the value and worth of the unborn against a state that sees them as mere burdens to the taxpayer. It also means that we must uphold the right of all individuals to act in accordance with their conscience in their attempts to create a culture of life.
In upholding the value, dignity, and rights of unborn children, pregnancy care centers do no harm. On the contrary, they are a bulwark against a culture that sees the unborn child as disposable. Pregnancy care centers do not restrict the ability of women to seek out abortion; they simply provide a pro-life alternative for those who freely enter their doorways. They should never be coerced into betraying their mission by taking part in the abortion culture’s brazen assault on unborn life.
Andrew T. Walker is the Director of Policy Studies at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is a doctoral candidate in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.