Iowa Supreme Court rules state can cut off funding to Planned Parenthood sex ed classes

Lauren Shaull/Flickr Creative Commons

The state of Iowa can ban Planned Parenthood of the Heartland (PPH) from receiving government funds to provide sex education programs, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in a decision handed down on Wednesday. The justices voted 6-1 to overturn a lower court that found the funding ban was unconstitutional.

Republican leaders of the Iowa Legislature attached the funding ban to the budget bill for the Iowa Department of Human Services during the final days of the 2019 legislative session, by means of a seldom-used legislative procedure that prevented any effort to remove it.

Although it prohibits any organization that provides abortion services from receiving grants that fund instruction for teens about safe sex, avoiding pregnancy and preventing STDs, the ban was specifically tailored to target Planned Parenthood. It contained an exemption that allowed Trinity Muscatine, the only organization other than PPH that would have been affected, to continue to receive the grant money. Trinity Muscatine is part of UnityPoint Health, which provides abortion services.

At the time the ban was passed in 2019, the reproductive healthcare nonprofit was using the grant money to provide sex education programs in 31 schools and 12 community-based youth service organizations across Iowa. PPH had been offering those sex education programs for over a decade, using a state-approved curriculum. In some counties, it was the sole provider of such programs.

After Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the funding ban into law, the ACLU of Iowa filed a legal challenge to it on behalf of PPH. District Court Judge Joseph Seidlen issued a temporary injunction stopping the ban from taking effect, after finding PPH would likely win its challenge.

“The state offers two judgments the legislature could have made in creating the classification here,” Seidlin wrote in his decision. “First, the state proposes that it could make a value judgment favoring childbirth over abortion. That could certainly be a legitimate government interest. It is also an interest that would be completely unserved by this legislation. This is because [the sex education programs] have nothing to do with the issue of live birth or abortion. It is not realistically conceivable that the classification here would make any difference regarding grants for such programming.”

Seilden found the state’s other stated reason — “it would prefer Iowa teens to receive sexual education and teen pregnancy prevention programming from entities other than those for whom abortion represents a significant revenue stream” — to be equally suspect.

“This is proposed in the context that one for whom abortion represents a significant revenue stream is ‘less scrupulous’ than one for whom it does not,” the judge noted. Considering this point, Seidlen asked, “what basis in fact could there be that providers of legal abortions have less scruples than anyone else?”

“As with the other, this second value judgment/governmental interest would likely be found not to be a valid, realistically conceivable purpose of this legislation,” he said.

A year later, District Court Judge Paul Scott made the temporary injunction permanent, finding the ban so clearly unconstitutional that he issued a summary judgment in favor of PPH.

“The Act has no valid, ‘realistically conceivable’ purpose that serves a legitimate government interest as it is both irrationally overinclusive and under-inclusive,” Scott wrote in his decision issued on Thursday. “The Act violates PPH’s right to equal protection under the law and is therefore unconstitutional.”

In its decision on Wednesday, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled, “Because an abortion provider lacks a freestanding constitutional right to provide abortions, any conditions premised on providing abortions cannot be considered unconstitutional.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Dana Oxley did not address the exemption for Trinity Muscatine, which meant the law could only therefore affect PPH.

Oxley found that preventing teenagers from forming a favorable impression of PPH in areas not dealing with abortion was a legitimate reason for the state imposing the funding ban.

“Even if the programs do not include any discussions about abortion, the goals of promoting abstinence and reducing teenage pregnancy could arguably still be undermined when taught by the entity that performs nearly all abortions in Iowa,” according to Oxley. “The state could also be concerned that using abortion providers to deliver sex education programs to teenage students would create relationships between the abortion provider and the students the state does not wish to foster in light of its policy preference for childbirth over abortion.”

Oxley was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court by Reynolds in January 2020. Three of the other justices who joined Oxley in her opinion were appointed by Reynolds, two were appointed by Terry Branstad.

Justice Brent Appel, the only remaining member of the court appointed by a Democratic governor, dissented in the case, finding the lower court judges were correct when they found the ban unconstitutional, although his analysis differed from theirs.

“I conclude that the statutes impose unconstitutional conditions on Planned Parenthood of the Heartland (PPH) by attempting to restrict abortion activities done on ‘their own time and dime,’” Appel wrote. “The legislature through unconstitutional conditions in these statutes is trying to accomplish indirectly what it cannot do directly: namely, attack abortion rights. This cannot be permitted.”

In a statement following the court’s decision, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States Sarah Stoesz called it “a major setback for public health.”

“Parents agree that young people need medically accurate information to make healthy decisions that will determine the trajectory of their lives,” she said. “As Iowa’s largest sex education provider, we are committed to our critical sex education programs, and we are invested in continuing this important work.”

Gov. Reynolds issued a statement celebrating the court’s action.

“Today’s ruling was a strong statement in support of the idea that taxpayer dollars should not fund abortion,” the governor said of the decision, which did not address the use of tax money for abortions.

The Reynolds administration is in the process of appealing another court decision involving PPH to the Iowa Supreme Court.

On June 21, a district court judge found an Iowa law imposing a waiting period of at least 24 hours on any women seeking an abortion to be unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction against its enforcement.

That law was pushed through by Republican legislators in the final hours of the last day of the legislative session in 2020. It was added as a last-minute amendment to a bill dealing with the withdrawal of medical intervention needed to sustain the life of a critically ill child. There were no hearings on the amendment, and there was no opportunity for public comment on it before it was approved.

Judge Mitchell Turner found the law violated both the Iowa Constitution provision requiring that bills only address one topic — the waiting period was added as an amendment to a bill unrelated to reproductive health — and it violated the due process and clauses of the constitution.

Republican lawmakers backing the bill in 2020 were clear that they intended it to be used as an opportunity to have the Iowa Supreme Court overturn its 2018 decision that found the Iowa Constitution offers greater protection to a woman’s right to choose an abortion than the U.S. Constitution does. Republicans have said they are hopeful the court will reverse itself, because its membership has changed since 2018, with Reynolds now having appointed four of its seven justices.

During an appearance before a conservative Christian gathering in July 2019, Reynolds boasted that “the tide is turning in Iowa’s Supreme Court,” she added, “In just two short years, we’ve moved the needle from left to right.”

At that time, the governor had only appointed two of the four justices she’s placed on the court.

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