Planned Parenthood sues states over abortion restrictions

In South Dakota, a new law requires waiting periods and counseling before abortions. Indiana plans to defund the organization's clinics in July.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted June 20, 2011

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Planned Parenthood chapters are waging legal battles against at least two states seeking to restrict abortion and eliminate funding for women's health care services.

Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota sued the state of South Dakota on May 27, challenging a new law requiring women seeking abortions to first undergo counseling. The measure also imposes a 72-hour delay for an abortion after a woman's initial consultation with her doctor and requires doctors to obtain written proof that the counseling was completed. The law is scheduled to go into effect July 1.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Indiana will decide by July 1 whether to block a law terminating Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood clinics in the state. Planned Parenthood officials said the loss of funding will leave thousands of low-income patients without access to Pap smears, cancer screenings, birth control and sexually transmitted disease treatment. Planned Parenthood of Indiana, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, is seeking a court injunction against the measure.

On June 1, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services rejected Indiana's plan to discontinue Planned Parenthood's funding. In a letter to state officials, HHS said Medicaid rules allow patients the freedom to choose any qualified health professional to receive approved legal services.

"This [law] would eliminate the ability of Medicaid beneficiaries to receive services from specific providers for reasons not related to their qualifications to provide such services," the letter stated. "Such a restriction would have a particular effect on beneficiaries' ability to access family planning providers."

If Indiana proceeds with the defunding, experts say the state could lose roughly $4 billion in Medicaid funding provided by the federal government.

"We have a strong case and look forward to continuing to communicate that the state has made a huge and costly mistake -- one that breaks laws that are already on the books and erodes Hoosiers' access to health care across Indiana," Planned Parenthood Indiana President and CEO Betty Cockrum said in a statement.

However, 28 U.S. senators are asking the Obama administration to reconsider the state's request. The senators, led by Orrin Hatch (R, Utah), sent a letter to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on June 9, requesting that CMS re-evaluate and accept Indiana's plan.

"Indiana's proposal should not only be approved, we believe it serves as an important model for every state," the letter stated. "We fully support the intent of [federal law] to prevent taxpayer dollars from subsidizing the operational costs of abortions, and, more broadly, we support the right of states to administer their Medicaid programs in a manner consistent with the values and needs of their citizens."

In a statement, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels promised that Medicaid recipients still would receive needed health services from facilities that don't offer abortions.

"I commissioned a careful review of access to services across the state and can confirm that all nonabortion services, whether family planning or basic women's health, will remain readily available in every one of our 92 counties," he said. "We will take any actions necessary to ensure that vital medical care is, if anything, more widely available than before."

Daniels added that any organization impacted by the law may resume its funding by "ceasing or separating its operations that perform abortions."

Jacob Oakman, a spokesman for Daniels' office, said the state would abide by any court rulings regarding the new law. The governor's office will seek guidance from the state attorney general on the HHS letter and Indiana's potential risk of losing its federal funding.

A doctor-patient intrusion?

In the South Dakota case, Planned Parenthood representatives said the new state law violates the private relationship between doctors and patients.

"The voters of South Dakota, by resounding measures at the ballot box, twice have told their legislators that the decision to have an abortion is between a woman, her family and her doctor, and that government should not intrude on that decision," said Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. "This law goes farther than any other in the country in intruding on the doctor-patient relationship and putting women and families at risk."

Some question the objectivity of the "pregnancy help center" facilities that will provide crisis counseling to women seeking abortions.

"It is demeaning for the government to force a woman to visit a nonmedical facility with a political agenda when she is making one of the most personal medical decisions of her life," said Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, which offers litigation assistance and advocacy to abortion rights groups.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who signed the law March 22, was not surprised by Planned Parenthood's lawsuit, and his office is prepared to defend its law in court, said spokesman Tony Venhuizen.

"He signed the law because he is pro-life and because he believes in [women] taking adequate time and having enough information before making" the decision to have an abortion, he said.

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