Free Speech Hypocrisies of Pro-Lifers

If there is any interest group more intellectually dishonest in its approach to free speech than anti-abortion activists, I have yet to encounter it. Their solicitude for their own speech rights is equaled only by their hostility to the speech rights of abortion providers and patients. Two respective laws recently passed by the New York City Council and the South Dakota legislature illustrate these hypocrisies.

To discourage if not effectively prohibit women from obtaining abortions, South Dakota now requires them to endure a three-day waiting period (in a state with only one abortion clinic) and to submit to counseling at an anti-abortion "crisis" center. In addition to unduly burdening abortion rights, the South Dakota law ignores women's First Amendment rights to decline to attend anti-abortion lectures. If this seems reasonable to you, think about a similar law that would require pregnant women, or women planning pregnancies, to undergo counseling about the risks of childbirth, the economic costs of raising children, and the possibility that they'll break your heart.

And think about the opposition of pro-lifers to a recently enacted New York City law requiring "crisis pregnancy centers" to describe the medical services they offer and disclose whether or not they are licensed medical providers. These disclosure requirements were prompted by evidence that the crisis centers regularly engage in deceptive practices, which you can find partly described here. I'd bet my last contribution to Planned Parenthood that centers in South Dakota, which women are forced to consult, provide similarly inaccurate or deceptive information. But pro-lifers apparently feel constitutionally entitled to their deceptions; and they do have a right to call themselves pregnancy crisis counselors, however misleading the label seems, while preaching against abortion -- so long as they refrain from providing pregnant women with objectively inaccurate information. But insisting that New York's disclosure law "strips" them of their First Amendment rights, crisis centers have hired the American Center for Law and Justice to challenge it.

Compare this righteous opposition to requirements that anti-abortion counselors present women with accurate information about their services and licenses, (or lack thereof) to the righteousness with which pro-lifers defend laws requiring abortion providers to present women with lists of horribles possibly attendant upon abortion, (a requirement upheld by the Supreme Court; the Court has also upheld a law barring recipients of federal funds from informing women about abortion options.) In other words, on the pro-life planet, abortion providers lack free speech rights to counsel patients without interference from the state, while anti-abortion activists enjoy very broad speech rights, including the utterly unregulated right to dispense inaccurate medical information and the power to force it upon pregnant women, who have no right to refuse it. As Nat Hentoff has said, "free speech for me, but not for thee." I hope, under the circumstances, that Hentoff, who opposes abortion rights, won't think I'm taking his name in vain.


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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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