CINCINNATI -- Thanks to a May 23 decision by Judge Michael Barrett, the Ohio law that would bar the state’s Department of Health from channeling federal money to programs offered by Planned Parenthood is on hold for at least two weeks.
Public health agencies at the state and local level, though, have already made contingency plans to reroute that money — about $1.5 million — so that access to health services can be maintained. Hamilton County isn’t waiting for the legal drama’s final curtain: It has enacted its alternative plan.
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Judge: First, 14th Amendment violations
Barrett’s reprieve was granted in response to a suit Planned Parenthood filed earlier in May in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. In the suit, the organization asks that implementation of the Ohio law be delayed while a separate suit challenging the law’s constitutionality works its way through the courts. Barrett’s injunction could be extended.
Planned Parenthood alleges the law “impermissibly disqualifies (Planned Parenthood) from receiving certain funds because of their constitutionally protected advocacy in support of safe and legal abortion.” Indeed, as spelled out to Planned Parenthood in a letter from Richard Hodges, Ohio’s director of health, the law specifically prohibits the department from “providing funds to an entity or its affiliate that performs non-therapeutic abortions.” As defined by the legislation, Planned Parenthood does that, although the abortions the law describes are still legal.
By law, neither federal nor state money may be used to fund abortions, but the grants affected by the latest legislation went to support entirely different efforts: multiple programs to test for sexually transmitted diseases, screenings for breast and cervical cancer, and education and outreach programs designed to lower infant mortality and to reduce teen pregnancy and STD rates.
That contradiction was at the core of Barrett’s ruling, which was issued the day the law was to go into effect. He agreed with the key allegations of Planned Parenthood’s suit: that the law punished the organization for exercising its First Amendment rights unrelated to the funded programs (specifically, advocating for abortion rights); and that the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due-process and equal-protection clauses. “There is … no doubt that the Ohio Legislature enacted (the law) for the purpose of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking to obtain an abortion.”
His decision specifically cited comments by Ohio Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, in debate on the bill: “‘(W)e have an obligation ... to say ... to Planned Parenthood, until you get out of the business of termination of pregnancy, the destruction of human life, we are not going to choose to fund you.’”
State’s grants re-assigned
The new law was signed by Gov. John Kasich in late February. Ohio’s Health Department in March sent letters warning its grant recipients of the imminent new requirements and asked agencies that suspected they or their affiliates would no longer qualify to inform the department.
Hodges sent his letters to Planned Parenthood’s two Ohio affiliates in mid-April, and the department moved to re-allocate the money previously earmarked to them. (Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio serves central and northern Ohio, including Columbus and Cleveland; Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio serves the rest of the state, including Cincinnati and Dayton. The parent national organization is Planned Parenthood Federation of America.)
Reflecting the variety of affected programs, the money was redirected to several agencies or nonprofits, including the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati, Appalachian Peace and Justice Network, OhioHealth Research and Innovation Institute and Women Helping Women, according to documents provided by the Health Department. The transfer of money — and services — is now on hold because of the federal court injunction, said Melanie Amato, a department spokeswoman.
Even with the law, Planned Parenthood will still receive some money, she said, because state grants reimburse agencies for services they have already delivered. Ohio will owe Planned Parenthood for its work from Feb. 1 to whenever the law may take effect.
In the Cincinnati area, the Hamilton County Health Department also moved to respond to the law’s February passage. As of April 1, its contract with Planned Parenthood to provide HIV testing was terminated. The contract was worth $77,000, according to a county health department spokesman.
HIV testing is now being provided through Caracole Inc., a Northside-based support agency for those with HIV. Caracole will continue to offer testing through the injunction period.
Despite the state’s contingency plans, Planned Parenthood officials argue that Ohioans — especially in minority or low-income neighborhoods — will suffer reduced access to health care because of the law. They applauded Barrett’s decision. “This ruling is a victory for the tens of thousands of Ohioans that rely on Planned Parenthood for care each year,” said Jerry Lawson, Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio’s chief executive, in a news release.
“This isn’t about politics for our patients; it’s about their health and their lives,” he said. “Politicians in Ohio will stop at nothing to ban abortion, and they’re willing to decimate access to preventive care in the process.”
Not surprisingly, Ohio Right to Life perceived the situation differently: “Despite the will of the people, Planned Parenthood will continue to feed at the trough of taxpayer dollars for another two weeks,” said Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life. “Today, Planned Parenthood's greed and power are on full display in Ohio."