For immediate release February 8, 1996 Contact: Andrea Miller 212-514-5534 ext. 250 Brooklyn, New York -- During arguments this morning in federal district court, United States Attorney Zachary Carter acknowledged the unconstitutionality of a provision in the minutes-old Telecommunications Act of 1996 that would outlaw abortion information on the Internet. Appearing on behalf of the JusticeDepartment before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Charles P. Sifton of the Eastern District of New York, Mr. Carter assured the court and plaintiffs in Sanger v. Reno that the federal government would not enforce the little-noticed section of the new law. Women's health care providers and advocates, represented by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, filed suit yesterday in anticipation of President Clinton's signing of the measure into law this morning -- with the Internet abortion information gag taking effect immediately. "We are extremely pleased that the Clinton Administration has recognized the invalidity of this law. However, we believe a court ruling against the provision barring receipt or provision of abortion information is still necessary to prevent a future administration or radical right-wing members of Congress from wielding it against women's health care providers and advocates," said Simon Heller, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy attorney who represents the advocates and health care providers in Sanger v. Reno. Because plaintiffs use the Internet for commercial and non-commercial speech concerning abortion, they would be subject to the statute's onerous penalties of up to $250,000 in fines and/or five years in prison for a first offense. Persuaded that there was no immediate threat of enforcement, Judge Sifton did not issue a temporary restraining order against the challenged provision. The court did indicate that it has asked Chief Judge Jon O. Newman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to convene a three-judge district court to decide Sanger v. Reno. The 1996 omnibus legislative package governing the telecommunications industry includes amendments to the infamous Comstock Act, an 1873 federal obscenity statute that outlawed sending material on contraceptives or abortion through the mail. Used to prosecute Margaret Sanger and other pioneers in the birth control movement, the law was revised by Congress in 1971 to remove the language concerning contraceptives. However, the restrictions on abortion information and materials remained on the books, even in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion. As amended by the 1996 communications law, 18 U.S.C. Section 1462(c) applies to taking or receiving, via interactive computer service, "any drug, medicine, article, or thing designed, adapted, or intended for producing abortion . . . or any written or printed card, letter, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or a notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, how, or of whom, or by what means any of such mentioned articles, matters, or things may be obtained or made." In the papers filed yesterday, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the measure violates the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the Fifth Amendment right to receive notice of prohibited conduct, and the Fifth Amendment right to make personal reproductive decisions. The ban on abortion information is broad enough to encompass a wide range of activities, including Internet advertisement of abortion services; Internet transmission of chemical formulas for drugs such as mifepristone or methotrexate, which can be used to induce abortion; purchase or sale over the Internet of medical equipment, such as the vacuum aspiration machine used in the abortion procedure; and bulletin boards or World Wide Web sites that tell women where they can obtain abortions. In addition, the pre-existing law prohibits, for example, transporting medical equipment used in abortions across state lines. Plaintiffs in the case, who file on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, are: Alexander Sanger, President of Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC); PPNYC; Professor Rhonda Copelon, Director of the International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic; Adam Guasch-Melendez, a Washington, D.C., resident who maintains a site on the World Wide Web; the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (North) (CARAL), the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL); the Feminist Majority Foundation; Medical Students for Choice; and the National Abortion Federation. They are represented by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy's Simon Heller, Janet Benshoof, and Kathryn Kolbert, along with NARAL's Marcy Wilder and Nicole McLaughlin. The following plaintiffs are available for comment: Alexander Sanger, Planned Parenthood of New York City, 212-274-7200 Kate Michelman, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, 202-973-3000 Eleanor Smeal, the Feminist Majority Foundation, 703-522-2214 Vicki Saporta, the National Abortion Federation, 202-667-5881 Pat Anderson, Medical Students for Choice, 510-540-1195 Professor Rhonda Copelon, International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic, 718-575-4300 Ann Daniels, the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, 415-546-7211 Adam Guasch-Melendez, 202-232-5994-- Stanton McCandlish
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