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Ohio can block Planned Parenthood funding, appeals court rules

Posted at 8:05 PM, Mar 12, 2019

Striking a blow to abortion rights activists, the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit has given Ohio the green light to cut funding to groups like Planned Parenthood.

The federal court's ruling Tuesday upheld an Ohio law that barred state funding for health care providers that offer abortions, overturning a decision that deemed the law unconstitutional.

"Private organizations do not have a constitutional right to obtain governmental funding to support their activities," Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote for the majority in the 11-6 opinion. "The state also may choose not to subsidize constitutionally protected activities. Just as it has no obligation to provide a platform for an individual's free speech ... it has no obligation to pay for a woman's abortion."

Planned Parenthood, which operates 26 health centers between its Greater Ohio and Southwest Ohio Region affiliates, stands to lose $1.5 million in annual funding from the state health department, according to media reports.

Planned Parenthood says that funding has been used for non-abortion-related programs, including other forms of health care and educational services.

"I recently visited our Ohio health centers where I saw for myself the public health necessity of our Planned Parenthood programs that reduce maternal and infant mortality, cut STI and HIV rates, and provide breast and cervical cancer screenings," Dr. Leana Wen, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement Tuesday. "Today's court ruling will roll back the gains to public health -- harming women's health, children's health, and the health of families across Ohio."

Planned Parenthood served more than 80,000 Ohio patients in 2017, according to Sarah Inskeep, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio. Outreach and educational programs helped more than 45,000 people. More than 170,000 sexually transmitted infection tests were administered, as were more than 18,000 HIV tests, she said in a statement.

The law, which was signed in 2016 by former Gov. John Kasich before being blocked, slashes funding that provides STD and HIV testing, cancer screenings, domestic violence education and a program to reduce infant mortality, Inskeep said.

"This is an incredible loss for our community. The law reduces access to sex education programs that teach young people about healthy relationships, and how to prevent STIs and unplanned pregnancies," added Kersha Deibel, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Southwest Ohio Region. "This law would have an outsized impact on groups who have historically faced systemic barriers in accessing quality health care, including people with low incomes and communities of color. Blocking access to education programs for Ohio's most underserved is unethical and downright dangerous."

One side's victory

The law was unanimously ruled unconstitutional last year by a three-judge panel for the 6th Circuit. Gov. Mike DeWine, then the state attorney general, asked for a full court hearing -- which rendered Tuesday's decision.

Current Attorney General Dave Yost's office did not respond to a request for comment.

As for DeWine, he is "pleased by today's decision as he has long believed that the people of Ohio, through its state legislature, have the right to decide what it funds and what it doesn't fund," spokesman Daniel Tierney wrote in an email.

DeWine is not alone.

"Ohio Right to Life is absolutely thrilled that Planned Parenthood will not get any more of our state tax dollars," said Michael Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, in a statement. "Thanks to this very encouraging decision, Ohioans of conscience won't have to worry about whether their tax dollars are going towards abortions."

The president of the national anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, Marjorie Dannenfelser, called the decision a "major victory" and cheered the fact that money once used to "prop up the abortion industry" could now be "redirected to life-affirming care providers."

And Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, said she hoped the decision would be a sign of more changes to come.

"AUL applauds the court's strong denunciation of Planned Parenthood's 'Big Lie' that it represents the best interests of women when it advocates for ... unlimited abortion on demand," she said in a statement. "We look forward to a similar conclusion by the federal courts affirming this Administration's decision to keep Title X funds out of the hands of abortionists like Planned Parenthood."

Another side's loss

On the other side of the abortion fight, advocates hope the ruling will function as a rallying cry.

"Today we are one step closer to becoming a forced birth nation," #VoteProChoice co-founder Heidi Sieck said in a written statement. "While the extreme, anti-choice conservative minority elected President Trump and took over the Supreme Court, our prochoice nation can still fight back if we vote prochoice up and down the ballot. ... This ruling must serve as an alarm bell."

The timing of the decision spoke volumes, said Iris Harvey, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio.

"It's no coincidence that this ruling came down on the same day the [Ohio] House heard testimony for a bill that would use taxpayer dollars to implement a costly, anti-abortion miseducation campaign in schools and the likely Senate committee vote for the dangerous six-week abortion ban -- a bill that Governor DeWine has promised to sign," she said in a statement. "It's clear that this is a concerted effort to block Ohioans' from accessing to the full range of reproductive health care, including safe and legal abortion."

Planned Parenthood says it doesn't know when the ruling will go into effect; that depends on when the Ohio Department of Health issues notifications of funding changes to its grantees. In the meantime, though, the organization is weighing its options, including further litigation.