Federal Judge Stops Texas from Blocking Planned Parenthood Funds

State immediately appeals judge's ruling

By Chris Tomlinson
|  Monday, Apr 30, 2012  |  Updated 11:54 PM CDT
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A federal judge stopped Texas from banning patients in the Women's Health Program from using Planned Parenthood clinics, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott appealed the decision hours later.

Scott Gordon, NBC 5 News

A federal judge stopped Texas from banning patients in the Women's Health Program from using Planned Parenthood clinics, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott appealed the decision hours later.

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A federal judge on Monday stopped Texas from preventing Planned Parenthood from getting state funds through the Women's Health Program, but the state immediately appealed.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in Austin ruled there is sufficient evidence that a law banning Planned Parenthood from the program is unconstitutional. He imposed an injunction against enforcing it until he can hear full arguments. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott appealed Yeakel's decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that it remove the injunction.

"Texas has a long history of protecting life, and we are confident in Attorney General Abbott's appeal to defend the will of Texans and our state law, which prohibits taxpayer funds from supporting abortion providers and affiliates in the Women's Health Program," said Gov. Rick Perry. "We will continue to work with the Attorney General to pursue all available legal options."

The law passed last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature forbids state agencies from providing funds to an organization affiliated with abortion providers. Texas law already required that groups receiving federal or state funding be legally and financially separate from clinics that perform abortions.

Eight Planned Parenthood clinics that do not provide abortions sued over the new law. The clinics say it unconstitutionally restricts their freedom of speech and association to qualify to take part in state health programs.

The judge accepted Planned Parenthood's argument that banning the organization from the program would leave women without access to clinics for basic health services and check-ups.

"The court is particularly influenced by the potential for immediate loss of access to necessary medical services by several thousand Texas women," Yeakel wrote in his ruling. "The record before the court at this juncture reflects uncertainty as to the continued viability of the Texas Women's Health Program."

Texas officials have said that if the state is forced to include Planned Parenthood, they will likely shut down the program that serves basic health care and contraception to 130,000 poor women. Yeakel acknowledged that was a risk.

"The court observes that if the federal funds are phased out, Texas does not provide another source of funds, and the Women's Health Program terminates, the controversy now before the court may be of no consequence," he wrote.

The Women's Health Program was established to provide care for poor women who would not otherwise qualify for Medicaid. It supplies cancer screenings, annual exams, and access to birth control.

Xelena Gonzalez of San Antonio said she received abnormal test results and needed a follow-up appointment just before the state law took effect in March, and her area Planned Parenthood clinic lost funding. She said she couldn't afford the lab fees and other costs of going to another provider. She said she is thrilled she can return to Planned Parenthood to follow up.

"It's a tremendous relief that someone is looking out for women," Gonzalez said Monday, referring to the judge's decision. "It makes me upset that these are men, for the most part, who are making decisions affecting our reproductive health and that they would try to shame us."

Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency would seek guidance from the Texas attorney general.

"We received the judge's order and will comply with the ruling, but we remain confident that federal law gives states the right to establish criteria for Medicaid providers," she said.

Patricio Gonzales, CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Hidalgo County, called on Republican Gov. Rick Perry to stop trying to shut down Planned Parenthood in Texas.

"We call on Governor Perry and the state to put Texan women first and set aside any vendetta they may have against Planned Parenthood," Gonzales said. "No woman should ever have to fear being cut off from her doctor's care because of shortsighted political games."

The court's decision comes after the federal government cut off funding to Texas because of the state regulation excluding affiliates of abortion providers. Federal officials said the rule violates federal law by restricting women from choosing the qualified medical provider of their choice.

Perry promised to make up for the lost federal funds. State health officials say maintaining the program was cheaper than allowing it to expire, because ending the program would result in a spike in unplanned pregnancies among poor women who rely on Medicaid, which is also funded by the state.

Planned Parenthood won a similar injunction earlier this year against the state's new requirement that doctors perform a sonogram before conducting an abortion. That injunction was overturned by the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit and the law allowed to stand.

No matter what the appeal court decides, Yeakel's decision is temporary. A final decision will come after he presides over a full trial. Whatever decision he reaches will likely be appealed.

For now, Ken Lambrecht, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Texas, said women can continue getting the care they need under the Texas Women's Health program.

"As of today, women who come to Planned Parenthood for womens health program services -- breast cancer screenings, cervical cancer screenings, pap smears -- can continue to come to our centers to receive life-saving care."

Associated Press writer Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth contributed to this report.

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