Planned Parenthood fights in court for state funding

Group says legislators wrongly singled it out

Staff writerAugust 11, 2011 

— A federal judge says he will decide soon whether to order the state to fund a Planned Parenthood affiliate that North Carolina lawmakers cut out of the state budget this year in an ideological broadside.

U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty Jr. on Wednesday heard arguments on Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina's motion for a preliminary injunction. After about an hour and a half spent engaging attorneys on both sides, Beaty said he would respond "shortly." It wasn't clear how long that meant, but by Wednesday evening, no decision had been announced.

If Beaty were to order the state Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the federal and state money involved, to restore Planned Parenthood's funding, the department would ask the state Attorney General's Office to review the ruling before acting, a spokeswoman said.

"How do we handle it when we have a legislative mandate on one side and a legal mandate on the other?" DHHS spokeswoman Renee McCoy said later Wednesday.

The hearing drew a bank of five attorneys for Planned Parenthood, including the senior lawyer for the national organization, members of a Washington firm and others from Raleigh. They were pitted against one lawyer from the state Attorney General's Office assigned to defend the General Assembly's decision.

The North Carolina case involves one of several anti-abortion laws recently enacted by legislatures across the country. Federal judges have ruled invalid similar attempts to defund family-planning groups in Kansas and Indiana.

"This law, in some ways, is the worst of all," Planned Parenthood attorney Paul Wolfson told the judge, because it specifically targets Planned Parenthood and not just abortion providers in general.

After the North Carolina budget went into effect July 1, Planned Parenthood sued to restore its contracts to provide family planning for Latinos in Durham, a teenage pregnancy-prevention program in Cumberland County, and a program that provided women with long-term contraceptives. All of those programs will end without the funding, the group says.

Right to be outspoken

None of the $212,000 that was anticipated from the state budget for those programs is used for abortions - and, by law, cannot be - but that is at the heart of the controversy. The organization is suing on several constitutional grounds, including that the General Assembly violated its free-speech right.

Planned Parenthood isn't arguing that it has a constitutional right to the money. Rather, it contends it has a right not to be punished for advocating on behalf of women's legal access to abortion.

"There's a constitutional right not to have a government follow discriminatory or unconstitutional criteria in deciding who receives funds," Wolfson told the judge.

To help prove their case, the lawsuit relies on comments legislators made about the organization while they were in session. Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican from Apex, said that Planned Parenthood "has particularly unsavory origins in the eugenics movement" and that the state should not be "rewarding the perpetrators of that program."

On the Senate floor, Sen. Warren Daniel, a Republican representing Burke and Caldwell counties, said Planned Parenthood nationally performed more than 300,000 abortions and nearly 1,000 adoption referrals in recent years.

"I think that's an appalling statistic," Daniel said, "and I'm not interested, and the constituents in my district are not interested, in funding an organization with these kinds of numbers."

Mabel Y. Bullock with the Attorney General's Office, facing a barrage of questions from the judge, said, "I'm not trying to defend what they said."

Bullock argued the state is entitled to have a policy favoring childbirth over abortion. She said that provides the legal basis to exclude a grant applicant that provides abortions.

She said the lawsuit wants the federal court to require the state to enter into a contract.

She said not funding Planned Parenthood doesn't harm anyone, since there are other providers. "It may be more difficult to obtain (services), but they're not being denied," she said.

craig.jarvis@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4576

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