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Signs of abortion rights

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Across the country, abortion rights opponents have been vigorously pushing new laws at the state and local level to restrict women's reproductive health rights. This month's ongoing fight in Texas — with an anti-abortion bill pending in a special session of the state legislature — is just one of the more high-profile battlegrounds.

In the first six months of 2013, according to the Guttmacher Institute, states have enacted 106 provisions related to abortion, the funding of family planning services and sex education. Abortion restrictions alone accounted for 43 of those, the second-highest number ever recorded at the mid-year mark by the non-profit research institute.

Against that troubling backdrop, it's difficult not to find encouraging last week's U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to overturn a lower court opinion striking down a Baltimore ordinance that requires pregnancy clinics to post signs stating if they do not provide abortions. At the very least, it's a reminder that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land.

It's been four years since the Baltimore City Council approved that ordinance, but we would argue now, as we did then, that it provides a reasonable consumer protection. It requires only that facilities state up front if they do not provide abortion services, referrals or birth control.

Why are such signs necessary? Abortion rights groups say clinic patrons may be confused or misled by operators, who are often affiliated with religious institutions. They may be given false information about abortion — that it causes breast cancer or that an 8-week fetus can feel pain — and not realize the faith-based nature of a particular clinic.

This is simply a matter of truth in advertising and not a restriction on free speech or First Amendment rights. Had the clinics been required to post a sign stating an opinion or point of view in conflict with their own, that would be unreasonable, but these are facts. Either the clinics provide these services or they do not. They are just as welcome to post a sign stating what services they do provide — or to proselytize to their patrons as much as they want, for that matter.

That the measure was struck down U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis and that ruling upheld last year by a three-judge panel demonstrated only that achieving a balance between free speech and privacy is often difficult. Indeed, the appeals court's decision merely sends it back to district court where further arguments will be heard.

Is this the cutting edge of protecting abortion rights? Probably not. But, on the other hand, it's disconcerting that young women might enter a place innocuously billed as the "Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns" and think they are receiving standard health counseling. They may not be. Instead, they may be hearing from an organization interested in steering them away from such legal choices as birth control or abortion. Shouldn't that be made clear from the outset?

But we are also not so naive that we would fail to recognize that abortion rights have become so politicized in this country that some might wish to see the Catholic Church and others get out of the pregnancy counseling business. Just as anti-abortion groups seek to layer on unnecessary regulation to discourage abortion providers, some on the left would find it fitting to employ a similar strategy against those who oppose abortion rights.

We would ask only that the federal courts call these balls and strikes objectively and respect not only the First Amendment but a woman's right to choose. The courts likely can't reverse states that choose to de-fund Planned Parenthood or make other bad decisions that are clearly legal, but they can stand up against these unconstitutional restrictions on abortion of recent months, such as imposing ridiculously long waiting periods or allowing health care providers to withhold pregnancy information if they believe a patient is considering abortion.

If fast-food providers have to offer calorie counts, tobacco companies health warnings or credit card providers an explanation of their fees and late charges, why can't a pregnancy clinic be required to indicate that it doesn't provide services one might reasonably expect of a pregnancy clinic? At least now, the courts will consider the full merits of the ordinance.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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