The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday in the state’s appeal of a district court ruling that a 2019 law blocking Planned Parenthood of the Heartland (PPH) from receiving government grants to conduct sex education programs for Iowa teens was unconstitutional.
At the time the ban on PPH 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 is the sole provider of such programs.
Republican leaders of the Iowa Legislature introduced the funding ban into the budget bill for the Iowa Department of Human Services during the final days of the legislative session, by means of a seldom-used legislative procedure that prevented any effort to remove it.
Although the law prohibits any organization that provides abortion services from receiving grants that fund instruction for teens about safe sex, avoiding pregnancy and preventing STDs, it specifically 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.
“The Act has no valid, ‘realistically conceivable’ purpose that serves a legitimate government interest as it is both irrationally over-inclusive and under-inclusive,” Judge Paul Scott wrote in his decision. “The Act violates PPH’s right to equal protection under the law and is therefore unconstitutional.”
Scott found the ban such a clear violation of PPH’s rights, he issued a summary judgment striking it down before the case went to trial. The law never blocked PPH from receiving grant money, because a different Polk County District Court judge issued a temporary injunction suspending it just weeks after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the ban into law on May 3, 2019.
In his argument before the Iowa Supreme Court on Tuesday, attorney Thomas Ogden conceded the programs the grants fund do not involve abortion, but argued the state was still within its right to ban PPH. The state, Ogden said, has a legitimate interest in promoting birth over abortion, and allowing PPH to receive state funds might “undermine” that interest, because some people may mistakenly infer the state supports all PPH’s activities, including abortion services.
“If you’re a parent or, you know, a citizen of the state and you find out that Planned Parenthood is providing sex education under these programs for Iowa teens, I think that you, there’s a risk that you would react to that differently than you would react to somebody who is not engaged in extracurricular, for lack of a better phrase, performance of abortions or advocacy in favor of access to abortion,” he told the justices.
Asked by Chief Justice Susan Christensen if he had any evidence that anyone was confused into believing the state backed PPH’s abortion services by the nonprofit receiving the grant money over the past decade, Ogden said he didn’t.
In its written argument filed with the court, PPH contended the 2019 law was aimed at penalizing their organization for providing abortion services and advocating for reproductive rights.
“A law based on sheer animus cannot survive any level of review,” according to PPH’s brief. “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.”
Justice Christopher McDonald asked attorney Julie Murray, representing PPH, if there were situations in which the state would be justified from excluding an organization from a grant program for other activities the organization might engage in.
“Let’s assume the government wanted to fund an anti-racist curriculum for teenagers and that as a provision of the statute it excludes any organization that engages in racist speech that might be protected speech, as well,” McDonald said. “Tell me why that’s not a legitimate interest for the government to exclude that speaker from delivering that curriculum.”
“What you are describing in your hypothetical is a situation in which the message to which the government is objecting to outside of the program is directly antithetical to the message that the government wants to fund in the program,” Murray replied. “That is not the case here, where the government has conceded … that these programs do not have an abortion-related message.”
This is the first case related to abortion to come before the Iowa Supreme Court since Gov. Reynolds appointed a majority of its justices. The governor made her fourth appointment to the seven-member court in April 2020, when she named Matthew McDermot to the seat formerly held by Justice David Wiggins, who had retired the previous month.
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 justices to the court.