WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with the more liberal faction of the court as it declined to hear legal arguments for defunding Planned Parenthood.
Anti–abortion rights advocates had championed Kavanaugh’s nomination, while abortion rights groups warned Kavanaugh would restrict abortion as a conservative vote. It is the first time a case on abortion has come before the court since Kavanaugh’s confirmation earlier this fall.
Current law does not allow federal funds to pay for abortions, but anti–abortion rights advocates have pushed for the ban to be broadened to reject public funds paying for any services from facilities that also provide abortions. The majority of services provided by Planned Parenthood are not abortion services, like cancer screenings and STD testing. Given that 73 million people are enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, such a ban would be a potentially fatal blow to Planned Parenthood.
In a surprise move, Kavanaugh joined with Chief Justice John Roberts in declining to take up two cases that could have been an existential threat to Planned Parenthood. Kansas and Louisiana had petitioned to block Medicaid funding going to Planned Parenthood, essentially meaning Medicaid recipients could not use their insurance at Planned Parenthood for any services. It takes four Supreme Court justices to agree to take up a case, and the conservative wing of Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch wanted to hear the petitions.
Kavanaugh and Roberts sided with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan in declining to hear the cases.
Lower courts had already ruled that states cannot ban Planned Parenthood from receiving reimbursements from Medicaid, the publicly funded insurance program for low-income people and people with disabilities.
In his dissent, Thomas accused his colleagues of trying to avoid a politically charged hearing. Thomas argued this fear was misplaced because the cases are not about abortion rights, but rather the right of people to challenge a state’s decision of who can be a licensed Medicaid provider.
“So what explains the Court’s refusal to do its job here? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that some respondents in these cases are named ‘Planned Parenthood.’ That makes the Court’s decision particularly troubling, as the question presented has nothing to do with abortion,” Thomas wrote.
The court had previously declined to hear the petitions, but that was before Kavanaugh had joined the bench. His nomination was met with a massive resistance campaign. During fiery hearings at the Senate Judiciary Committee, he vowed to be a fair and independent jurist. He was narrowly confirmed after winning over pro–abortion rights Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who said she did not believe Kavanaugh would vote to overturn the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade.
Anti–abortion rights groups are also lobbying the Trump administration to block funds to Planned Parenthood under Title X. “The pro-life grassroots will not stop fighting until every single tax dollar is untangled from the abortion industry led by Planned Parenthood,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List.
Planned Parenthood praised the court’s decision. “We are pleased that lower court rulings protecting patients remain in place. Every person has a fundamental right to health care, no matter who they are, where they live, or how much they earn,” said Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.