The religious right’s celebration of the new domestic gag rule exposes the glaring hypocrisy of the anti-choice movement when it comes to freedom of speech.
These groups pushed for the devastating new rule proposed by the Trump administration; it would not only forbid recipients of federal family planning funds from performing abortions using separate funding, but also remove a requirement that providers give patients information and referrals for all pregnancy options, including abortion. It’s an imposition by fiat of a domestic version of the global gag rule that Trump re-instituted and expanded at the start of his administration, and it could dramatically restrict women’s access to birth control, cancer screenings, and other health care.
In an email to supporters of his Faith & Freedom Coalition, religious right leader Ralph Reed called the policy “the latest example of a pro-life promise made and a pro-life promise kept by President Trump.” Reed said, “we all rejoice at this major victory for the pro-life movement.” Religious right legal group Liberty Counsel also praised Trump, with the group’s chairman, Mat Staver, calling the administration’s move “a positive step toward making the womb a safe place again.”
Trump basked in the anti-choice movement’s adulation while he lavished praise on himself at the Susan B. Anthony List gala last week, declaring that “every life is totally worth protecting,” with no apparent self-awareness that his policies are putting many women’s and children’s lives in jeopardy.
Indeed, the worst thing about the new proposed rule is that it will deny women potentially life-saving access to information and treatment. It’s another step forward in the religious right’s campaign to destroy Planned Parenthood and eliminate access to safe and legal abortion altogether.
In effect, the federal government is imposing on all health-care providers the kind of restrictions imposed on Catholic-affiliated institutions by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholic hospitals in the U.S. are required to follow a set of medical directives, which can endanger lives by delaying or denying medical care during risky pregnancies or miscarriages. Abortion, sterilization, and birth control are all contrary to the Bishops’ rules. Hospital mergers in recent years mean that Catholic hospitals, and their restrictions on care, play a growing role in the U.S. health care system.
The Trump administration’s new rule comes as religious right groups are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn on free speech grounds a California law requiring that so-called crisis pregnancy centers—fake clinics that often lie to patients to dissuade them from having an abortion—let women know that the state provides access to free or low-cost prenatal care, birth control, and abortion. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and other religious right groups say the law is an example of “tyranny.”
Groups that see a dire First Amendment threat in requiring the simple posting of a sign giving women information somehow see no problem in a law that literally silences the speech of doctors, nurses, and other health providers by forbidding them from giving women basic information about their health and potential medical treatment.
Not only that, religious right activists who say they are outraged about “compelled speech” in the California case have backed many state rules that require doctors to give women information they know to be medically inaccurate, such as requirements that doctors tell women that abortion is linked to breast cancer.
Denise Burke, senior counsel at ADF—which is pushing an aggressive state legislative strategy to overturn Roe and ban abortion—said in January that the group is working to show that women are harmed by abortion. Burke praised these so-called informed consent laws, saying they can help “advance a pro-life ethic.” Several ADF-affiliated attorneys have been nominated by President Trump for lifetime federal judgeships, including Amy Coney Barrett, now serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and Kyle Duncan, who was confirmed to the Fifth Circuit.
As Amy Myrick, an attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told a local news station in March, state laws “that require providers to give women misleading or untruthful information about discredited links between breast cancer and abortion or mental health harms and abortion [should] clearly be found to be unconstitutional” if the Supreme Court strikes down the California requirement on free speech grounds.
For the record, the American Cancer Society says that “scientific evidence does not support the notion that abortion of any kind raises the risk of breast cancer or any other type of cancer.” A 2016 study by the Informed Consent Project at Rutgers University-New Brunswick examined “informed consent” booklets in 23 states and found that nearly a third of the information in the legally required materials was medically inaccurate.
But as long as it helps advance their anti-choice agenda, the religious right doesn’t seem to mind.