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Women's Health Care Advocates Win Government Assurance That Internet Abortion Gag Won't Be Enforced

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

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

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Online Activist



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