A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that Kansas can strip two Planned Parenthood clinics of federal family planning money while the organization moves forward with its legal challenge of a state law it says is retaliation for its advocacy of abortion rights.
Kansas is among several conservative states that have sought in recent years to strip Planned Parenthood of funding. At issue in Tuesday's ruling is money distributed to states under Title X, a federally financed family planning program. The Title X money targets low-income individuals seeking reproductive services such as birth control, pregnancy testing, cancer screenings and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. It cannot be used for abortions.
U.S. District Court Judge J. Thomas Marten blocked enforcement of the state law in 2011, ruling that it was unconstitutional in its intention to punish Planned Parenthood for advocating for abortion rights and would likely be overturned. He ordered Kansas to continue funding Planned Parenthood until the case was resolved. He also found the state law violated the U.S. Constitution's supremacy clause, saying states cannot impose additional requirements for entities to qualify for federal programs.
A divided panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver overturned Marten's rulings, saying Kansas can halt the funding. Tuesday's decision is not a final ruling on the merits of the case itself, and the appeals court sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. Given the split 2-1 ruling and the issues at stake in the litigation, it is also likely that the panel's decision could be appealed to the full court for a rehearing.
The appeals court panel rejected Planned Parenthood's claims that losing the family planning money amounted to a violation of free-speech rights for associating with abortion providers. It also said that the supremacy clause does not necessarily entitle Planned Parenthood to a court order forcing the state to continue the family planning funding.
The panel rejected the notion that Planned Parenthood can challenge the state law as unconstitutionally "solely on the ground that its passage was motivated by a desire to penalize Planned Parenthood's protected speech and association."
In a strongly worded dissent, Judge Carlos Lucero wrote that Marten's ruling was "well-grounded" in its findings of fact, had correctly applied court precedent and was free of error. Lucero said he was not persuaded to follow the "vanishing trail that my colleagues pursue in an end run around the district court."
Planned Parenthood's lawsuit challenged a Kansas law that requires the state to first allocate Title X money to public health departments and hospitals, which leaves no funds for specialty family planning clinics like Planned Parenthood.
Kansas had argued Marten's ruling "emasculates the state of Kansas' autonomy and sovereignty rights" in the Constitution's 11th Amendment. The state contends the law restricting the distribution of federal family planning funds does not target Planned Parenthood because the statute itself does not name the group or even mention abortion.
"We are pleased with today's ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. We will continue to defend Kansas law in regards to any further challenges," the Kansas attorney general's office said in an emailed statement.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement that, “no matter what,” the organization will continue to assist the men and women who rely on it, “regardless of what happens in the courts.”
"Planned Parenthood’s doors remain open in Kansas and in more than 700 health centers across the country. We will explore every possible option to protect the health of women in Kansas," she said.
“What’s clear is that for lasting change, we need new leadership at the state level — to prevent these cruel and dangerous laws from passing in the first place. That’s why Planned Parenthood Action Fund has boots on the ground in all 50 states, to ensure that a woman’s access to reproductive health care and her rights don’t depend on her zip code," she added.
One in five women in the U.S has relied on a Planned Parenthood health center at least once in her life, the organization said.
The Kansas entities affected are Planned Parenthood's clinics in Wichita and Hays, neither of which provides abortion services. The only Planned Parenthood clinic that provides abortion services in Kansas is in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park. It does not receive federal family planning funding.
Efforts in other states to defund Planned Parenthood have had varying success. Texas was able to remove Planned Parenthood from a state health program for low-income women, but in Indiana, a judge barred the state from denying Medicaid funding to the organization's clinics.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press