The Iowa Judicial Building. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Judicial Branch)
The state of Iowa and Planned Parenthood are preparing to square off in court again over a 2019 law that attempted to block the organization from receiving state funds for sex education programming.
In May 2020, an Iowa district court struck down the controversial law, ruling that it was unconstitutional in that it violated Planned Parenthood’s right to equal protection under the law. The state appealed that ruling and the two sides are now expected to argue their case before the Iowa Supreme Court on March 23.
The dispute centers on the eligibility for two state grant programs aimed at educating Iowa teens about sex, pregnancy and related topics. The curricula for the two grant programs is specified by the state, and does not include any materials concerning abortion.
But conservative state lawmakers, concerned that any money flowing into Planned Parenthood could be considered an indirect subsidy of abortion, approved the 2019 bill amending the eligibility requirements for grantees so as to exclude those who performed or promoted abortions.
In briefs recently filed with the Iowa Supreme Court, the state argues that although the grant money is not used to pay for abortions or to promote abortions, the mere fact that the state would contract with Planned Parenthood would create a perception that the state implicitly approves of Planned Parenthood’s advocacy of abortion rights.
“Employing abortion providers like Planned Parenthood to deliver the state’s message on sex education and teen pregnancy sends a message to students, parents, and all Iowans,” the state argues, adding that the ban on grant funding does not violate a woman’s right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, and “does not impact access to abortion at all.”
Planned Parenthood claims the law was passed for the sole purpose of “penalizing Planned Parenthood” for its abortion-related activities.
“A law based on sheer animus cannot survive any level of review,” the organization argues. “A bare desire to harm a group of which the government disapproves is precisely the type of invidious discrimination prohibited by the equal-protection guarantee.”
In support of its “punishment” theory, Planned Parenthood notes that state lawmakers singled out the organization by their decision to include in the law an exemption that ensured continued grant funding for Trinity Muscatine, which is part of UnityPoint Health, a health network that performs abortions.
In countering that argument, the state says hospital systems like UnityPoint Health are “not associated with the performance of or advocacy for abortions in the same way as Planned Parenthood, even though they may perform a small number of abortions or refer a small number of patients for them.”
Planned Parenthood also points out that during Senate debate over the bill, Sen. Mark Costello, a Mills County Republican, stated: “We are not targeting (Planned Parenthood) by name, but the fact that they provide abortions is the criteria that we’re setting up to not be able to participate in this program.”
In court, however, the state has argued that one “plausible policy justification” for the legislation is that the state is allowed to express a preference for childbirth over abortion. The district court rejected that argument when it found that the CAPP and PREP curricula were dictated by the state and did not include any discussion of abortion.
“This (law) effectively singles out Planned Parenthood of the Heartland while still allowing other possible recipients of the grants to provide a vast array of abortion-related services, such as promoting abortion or even, possibly, referring patients to PPH for an abortion procedure,” Polk County District Court Judge Paul Scott ruled. “This does not match the value judgment favoring childbirth over abortion.”
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