When you live in a pro-abortion state like New York, the inveterate hostility of the government can sometimes feel like a force of nature. It is all too easy for people to become discouraged, as if resistance is futile.
But the Sisters of Life have shown us once again that not only is resistance possible, but pro-life success can also be accomplished.
In the immediate aftermath of the Dobbs decision in 2022, New York enacted a law that directed the state health department to conduct a “study” of what it called “limited service pregnancy centers.” The bill was a manifestation of the nationwide effort by abortion advocates to harass and stigmatize pregnancy centers as “deceptive,” with the ultimate goal of putting them out of business.
The legislative history of the bill shows that it was the product of that hostility and bias against pro-life people. There were never any public hearings where evidence was presented about alleged “deceptions” or where the pregnancy centers had an opportunity to be heard. The bill was rushed through the legislature amid the fury of pro-abortion advocates after Dobbs. When she signed the bill, the governor infamously slandered pro-lifers as “Neanderthals.”
So it is utterly manifest that this study is not being done in good faith. It is an abuse of power to punish people because the government disapproves of their beliefs. The study targets only pro-life centers that refuse to refer for abortions. It specifically exempts any pro-abortion organization. That is a classic violation of the free speech clause of the Constitution; it selectively imposes burdens only on people who refuse to toe the party line.
The study was also deliberately designed to be an oppressive fishing expedition. The laundry list of documents demanded under the bill is very long and intrusive, and some of them are utterly irrelevant to the purported purpose of the study.
The study would thus require pregnancy centers, which are largely run by volunteers, to spend hours and hours collecting records and to waste scarce funds on lawyers’ fees. This bill is a perfect example of the saying “the process is the punishment.”
The Sisters of Life case exposed the worst aspects of the bill. The Sisters deal with women in crisis, either because they are contemplating abortion or are being pressured to have abortion, or they are suffering from the aftermath of one. The Sisters accompany these women through these very trying times, with sensitivity and privacy at the heart of the relationship. The state trying to force the Sisters to reveal details about those women and how they minister to them is an egregious violation of that privacy, and it could undermine the trust that is necessary for the ministry to succeed.
The Sisters’ mission is also fundamentally religious in nature. They honor the dignity of every human life, both born and unborn. They see the women and their babies as children of God, made in his image and likeness, and they strive to love them as God loves them.
The study would intrude directly into the Sisters’ religious freedom to conduct their ministry. It would interfere with the Sisters’ internal operations, the way they prayerfully make decisions, and even the way that they develop their own religious vocations. Those are sacred rights that no government has the right to violate.
Faced with such an attack on their constitutional rights, the Sisters sought help from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, great champions of religious freedom who generously agreed to represent the Sisters pro bono.
The Sisters first tried to resolve the problem by asking the state to assure them that they would not be targeted. But the state refused to give that assurance. In fact, it refused to give any answer at all to the question of whether the Sisters fell within the law.
So the Sisters had no choice but to bring a lawsuit to protect their rights. Even after the filing of the lawsuit, the Sisters spent over a year trying to reach a settlement with the state. But the state delayed and delayed, leaving the Sisters in a terrible position — in a state of constant anxiety about what might happen and vulnerable to hostile state action at any time. Remember, “the process is the punishment.”
Finally, 15 months after the Sisters first sought to resolve the case, the state came to the table in good faith and agreed that it would not use the study law to demand any information or documents from the Sisters. The Sisters successfully stood up to the bully, and they won.
Other pregnancy centers are still vulnerable to this oppressive study. The state served many of them with the same intrusive demands that the Sisters had feared.
But the success of the Sisters’ case is a tremendous sign of hope to the other pro-life organizations. They too can push back against this unfair study. They too can assert their constitutional rights against arbitrary and unjust government intrusion. And thanks to Becket’s expert legal filings, the best constitutional arguments have already been laid out for the other centers to use.
The hostile, pro-abortion government of New York now knows that pro-lifers are not going to take oppression lying down. If the government seeks to violate our rights, they’re going to have a fight on their hands.
[Disclaimer: I was part of the legal team advising the Sisters of Life in connection with the study bill and the litigation. I take no credit for the favorable outcome; that all goes to Becket and the Sisters, and to the greater glory of God.]