A federal judge blocked Ohio's attempt to strip non-abortion funding from Planned Parenthood, ruling on a preliminary basis that state authorities had overstepped with a new regulation blocking abortion providers from unrelated health funds.
At issue is about $1.5 million the state has granted Planned Parenthood's 28 health centers in Ohio. The funds go to several separate programs that, respectively, work on STD prevention, fighting HIV/AIDS in communities of color, sexual health education for young people, breast and cervical cancer prevention, infant mortality reduction and preventing sexual violence against women.
None of the money goes to abortion services. But Ohio state authorities argued that they had a right to strip Planned Parenthood of the funds because it provides legal abortions, and that the state is entitled to express a preference for childbirth.
Federal district court judge Michael B. Barrett, a George W. Bush appointee, disagreed. "There is nothing within the scope of these programs related to performing abortions, promoting abortions or affiliating with an entity that performs or promotes abortions," he wrote. Under the constitution, he added, the state "cannot condition funding for these programs based on a recipient's exercise of the right to free speech or association outside of these programs."
Barrett dismissed the state's argument that, for example, the funds were too entangled with abortion because the free STD testing happened "at the surgical center for patients receiving abortions.... However, [the state] does not explain how offering this test at the surgical center garbles or distorts Ohio's message. The STD testing is not related to the abortion services, nor is it a precursor to a discussion about abortion services. Instead, it is a medically separate service, which Plaintiffs code and allocate to ensure the funding is also separate from Plaintiffs' abortion services."
Opponents of abortion rights at the state and national level have often argued that money is fungible, so it doesn't matter whether public funds are actually going to abortion if Planned Parenthood also provides that service. Barrett rejected that argument.
"The state of Ohio will be appealing this ruling," Lisa Peterson Hackley, a spokeswoman for Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine, told NBC News.
"Today's ruling supports the rights of all Ohioans to access needed health care," Iris E. Harvey, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, said in a statement. "This law would have been especially burdensome to communities of color and people with low income who already often have the least access to care — this law would have made a bad situation worse. Politicians have no business blocking patients from the care they need - and today the court stopped them in their tracks."