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Sixth Circuit Greenlights Ohio Law Prohibiting Public Funding of Abortion Clinics

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Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio v. Hodges

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision from the Southern District of Ohio at Cincinnati invalidating an Ohio law barring the public funding of abortion clinics. This is good news. The law has now been upheld and can go into full effect.

The court said the state’s condition for receiving public health funds “does not violate the Constitution because the [clinics] do not have a due process right to perform abortions.” I know that seems obvious, but this is exactly what Planned Parenthood has tried to argue for many years. They claim not only that women have a constitutional right to abortion but also that they, as the providers of this “holy” right, have a constitutional right to provide abortions. The court appropriately and emphatically rejected that claim. The court’s sound reasoning now opens the door for the will of the majority of Ohioans to be carried out. The citizens of Ohio, along with the majority of the rest of the country, do not want their tax dollars to subsidize abortion providers.

In 2016 Ohio passed a law prohibiting funds from being used to “(1) Perform nontherapeutic abortions; (2) Promote nontherapeutic abortions; (3) Contract with any entity that performs or promotes nontherapeutic abortions; (4) Become or continue to be an affiliate of any entity that performs or promotes nontherapeutic abortions.”

Ohio made clear the purpose of the law is, (1) to “Promote childbirth over abortion” which the Supreme Court has already said is constitutionally permissible (“[A] State is permitted to enact persuasive measures which favor childbirth over abortion, even if those measures do not further a health interest.” Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 886 (1992)), (2) “to avoid ‘muddl[ing]’ that message by using abortion providers as the face of the state healthcare programs” (there are thousands of quality health care options for women besides Planned Parenthood – in Ohio, one study found 280 federally qualified health clinics and rural health clinics, compared to just 28 Planned Parenthood Abortion Clinics), and (3) “to avoid entangling program funding and abortion funding” (public funding inevitably helps Planned Parenthood be the number one abortion provider in the country, performing more than 300,000 abortions a year – more than 27,000 a month, more than 900 a day).

Planned Parenthood, having become synonymous with abortion, promptly sued Ohio, “claiming that the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by conditioning government funding on giving up their rights to provide abortions and to advocate for them.” The district court and a panel of the Sixth Circuit agreed and permanently enjoined the State from enforcing the law.

Thankfully, the Sixth Circuit en banc (before the full court) now reverses those misguided opinions and correctly applies the law, including applicable precedent, to this case. Judge Jeffrey Sutton, writing for the court, reminds us that, “The United States Constitution does not contain an Unconstitutional Conditions Clause.” Writing clearly and concisely, he says, “Governments generally may do what they wish with public funds,” citing Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173, 192–94 (1991). He continues, “What makes a condition unconstitutional turns not on a freestanding prohibition against restricting public funds but on a pre-existing obligation not to violate constitutional rights.” In other words, the government cannot deny a clinic’s funding on a reason that violates the clinic’s constitutional rights.

But the constitutional right at issue here “prohibits a State from imposing an ‘undue burden’ on a woman’s access to an abortion before fetal viability. Casey, 505 U.S. at 877 (plurality).” It has nothing to do with a clinic’s right to perform abortions. “The Supreme Court has never identified a freestanding right to perform abortions.”

Therefore, since there is no constitutional right, there can be no constitutional violation of that right. It is that simple.

A woman may bring a claim, as the dissent envisions, saying this law places an undue burden on her constitutional right to obtain an abortion, but this is hard to imagine, given the facts of this case where the clinics have all publicly expressed their commitment to abortion with or without this law. Ruling for Planned Parenthood in this case, “would create a constitutional right for providers to offer abortion services and, in doing so, move the law perilously close to requiring States to subsidize abortions. Case law rejects both possibilities.”

Bottom line, “so long as the subsidy program does not otherwise violate a constitutional right of the regulated entity, the State may choose to subsidize what it wishes — whether abortion services or adoption services, whether stores that sell guns or stores that don’t.”

Mario Diaz, Esq. is CWA’s general counsel. Follow him on Twitter @mariodiazesq.