Defund Planned Parenthood: The Supreme Court Says It's Not On the National Agenda

With Supreme Court rulings on hot-button issues like the Defense of Marriage Act and affirmative action expected any day now, it’s easy to forget that sometimes, the justices’ decision not to hear a case can be just as significant as a formal court opinion. This is precisely what happened last Tuesday, when the Supreme Court turned down an appeal case involving abortion rights and federal funding.

In declining to hear the case, the justices effectively upheld a 2012 ruling by the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down an Indiana law blocking Planned Parenthood’s access to federal Medicaid funds. The appeals court determined that the law interfered with a woman’s right to choose her medical provider, but supporters of the law, which was passed in 2011, object to Planned Parenthood’s status as the largest provider of abortions in the United States. Marjorie Dannenfelser, a pro-life activist quoted in the above NPR piece, cites statistics showing that roughly a quarter of U.S. abortions are performed in Planned Parenthood clinics.

Still, such statistics are slightly misleading. Planned Parenthood may be a leading provider of abortions, but despite what Jon Kyl infamously suggested, abortions account for only a fraction of the services the group provides — just under 3%, as of 2011. Planned Parenthood is, however, a major provider of other potentially life-saving services. Roughly 20% of women will visit a Planned Parenthood clinic at least once in their lives, primarily for counseling and procedures related to contraception, cancer screening, and STD screening and treatment. Furthermore, the group works hard to provide care to those who might not otherwise have access to it, whether for financial or geographical reasons. Planned Parenthood’s rural and inner-city clinics often function as primary care providers for underprivileged women, many of whom are of course members of racial or ethnic minorities.

As it stands now, the Hyde Amendment prevents the use of federal funds in cases of abortion (with the usual exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother). This is, of course, something that many pro-choice groups, including the ACLU, would like to see changed, in part because the ban disproportionately affects low-income women. The Indiana decision to defund Planned Parenthood, however, did not center on any so-called misuses of taxpayer dollars, because, as Nina Totenberg points out, the organization provides only privately funded abortions. Supporters of the Indiana law objected to the mere presence of federal funds in clinics that also provide abortions, even if those very same funds proved to be “pro-life” in all but the strictest and most partisan of senses by, for example, catching a cancer before it has the chance to spread.

Given all of this, the Supreme Court’s decision to sit out this particular battle has largely been hailed as a victory by women’s rights groups and pro-choice advocates. But how much has actually changed? Indiana is far from the only state to consider cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, nor is it the only state to have followed through. Only a week ago, and in the wake of several catastrophic tornadoes, the Oklahoma legislature voted to defund the group, and Texas’s 2011 decision to do the same has had mixed results, to say the least. Last Tuesday’s news is a step in the right direction, but it is clearly not enough.