Pennsylvania’s long-standing abortion funding ban wins lopsided victory in court

Credit: Unsplash.

Harrisburg, Pa., Mar 29, 2021 / 01:11 pm (CNA).- A lawsuit from abortion providers seeking to overturn Pennsylvania’s ban on state funds for abortion found little support in court, with a 6-1 decision in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court backing the existing law.

The 1982 Pennsylvania law called the Abortion Control Act bars the use of state funds for abortion except in rape, incest, or to save the life of a mother. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court upheld the law in 1985, saying there is a legitimate state interest in “preserving potential life.” It had said the funding restrictions did not interfere with a woman’s legal right to abortion.

The provision is almost identical to federal limits on federal Medicaid dollars for abortion, the Associated Press reports.

The lawsuit against the state law, filed in 2019, sought a court order to require the state’s Medicaid program to fund abortion without restrictions.

A seven-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court, with one judge dissenting, ruled March 26 that it is bound by the 1985 state Supreme Court decision backing the law. It also ruled that operators of abortion clinics lack legal standing to challenge the law through claiming the constitutional rights of low-income women seeking an abortion are violated by the funding restrictions.

Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote the opinion on the case.

Plaintiffs in the case included several Planned Parenthood affiliates, the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center, the Allentown Women’s Center, the Delaware County Women’s Center, and the Philadelphia Women’s Center. Combined, the plaintiffs perform about 95% of the abortions in Pennsylvania, according to the Harrisburg-based The Patriot-News.

The plaintiffs could still appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Gov. Tom Wolf is a pro-abortion rights Democrat, but his administration defended the law, the Associated Press reports. Republican lawmakers also intervened in the case.

House Republican leaders said the court was “making the right decision and not taking an action to rewrite existing law,” and that its decision was “a victory for all pro-life Pennsylvanians.”

Only 16 other states allow state funding for abortion beyond the limits of Pennsylvania’s law.

The abortion providers challenging the funding limits argued that their clients are “forced to choose between continuing their pregnancy to term or using funds needed for essentials of life to pay for an abortion procedure.”

They objected that they must use their own funds and staff to cover abortions for clients ineligible for publicly funded abortions, the Associated Press reports. The abortion providers also objected to asking questions about whether the unborn child was conceived in rape or incest.

They charged that the coverage violated Pennsylvania’s Equal Rights Amendment, contending that abortion was a procedure sought only by women and so funding limits discriminate on the basis of sex. They sought to argue that abortion is a pregnancy service like prenatal care, labor, and delivery costs, which are covered by Medicaid, and it is therefore wrong to exclude abortion.

Federal limits on abortion funding known as the Hyde Amendment date to the 1970s. However, President Joe Biden, a former supporter of the Hyde Amendment, reversed his support for the policy over a 24-hour period in June 2019.

Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives have pushed for the repeal of the policy in recent years, including a group of House members who asked Biden to leave the policy out of his budget request for the 2022 fiscal year.

In late February, the House passed a massive COVID relief bill without protections against abortion funding. Efforts to amend the bill to include Hyde Amendment-style provisions failed.

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