By David G. Savage
A divided Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an abortion-related case from conservative states that sought to defund Planned Parenthood.
It was a sign that at least some members of the newly strengthened conservative majority are not yet ready to move the court to the right on sensitive issues such as abortion.
The court's action leaves in place federal court rulings in much of the country that prevent states from denying Medicaid funds to women who go to a Planned Parenthood clinic for healthcare, including medical screenings or birth control. It is already illegal to use federal money like Medicaid to pay for abortions, but some states wanted to go further, cutting off all Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood because the organization offers the procedure using alternative revenue sources.
In dissent, Justices Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch, accused their colleagues of "abdicating our judicial duty."
"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,' " Thomas wrote.
The court's brief order denying the appeals from Louisiana and Kansas suggest Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh were not willing to hear the cases.
It takes four justices to hear a case, and these appeals were considered in a series of closed-door meetings since late September. But the court's conservatives were unable to gain the needed fourth vote.
Kavanaugh took his seat in the second week of October, and his supporters have assumed he would vote in favor of restricting abortion rights when given the opportunity.
In the past decade, conservative states have sought to defund Planned Parenthood because it is the nation's largest single provider of abortions. None of the Medicaid money pays for abortions, and most of these state funding bans have been blocked by federal judges.
Lawyers for Louisiana and Kansas argued the state should not be forced to subsidize organizations that perform abortions.
Medicaid is jointly funded by the federal government and the states, and Congress has said its funds may not be used to pay directly for abortions. But more than 2 million people go to Planned Parenthood clinics for birth control and general healthcare, including cancer screenings and pregnancy tests. And for low-income women, this healthcare can be paid for through Medicaid.
Republican lawmakers who sponsored the "defund" laws argue the states should not indirectly subsidize facilities that perform abortions.
But lawyers for Planned Parenthood and their patients have gone to federal courts and won rulings blocking most of these laws from taking effect. They have done so by relying on a provision in the Medicaid Act that says eligible patients may go to any doctor's office, hospital or clinic that is "qualified to perform" the required medical services. If a federal law creates a right for individuals, plaintiffs like the Planned Parenthood patients may go to court and sue if that right is denied.
But in their appeals, lawyers for Kansas, Louisiana and 13 other states argue that Medicaid is a healthcare spending agreement, not a law that establishes rights for individuals. If so, they say, states may decide who is a qualified provider of healthcare.
On Monday however, the court said it would not hear Gee vs. Planned Parenthood from Louisiana or Andersen vs. Planned Parenthood from Kansas.
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