U.S. Supreme Court revives South Carolina Planned Parenthood defunding case

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out a lower court ruling that blocked South Carolina from ending public funding to Planned Parenthood, giving the Republican-governed state another chance to defend its bid to deprive the reproductive healthcare and abortion provider of government money.

The justices sent the case back to the lower court to reconsider the case in light of their 7-2 ruling on June 8 in a similar case from Indiana preserving an individual’s right to sue government officials over alleged violations of rights created by federal programs that Congress enacts through its spending power, like the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor.

The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had barred South Carolina from terminating funding to Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, the organization’s regional affiliate, under Medicaid, because the organization provides abortions.

Planned Parenthood South Atlantic operates clinics in the South Carolina cities of Charleston and Columbia, where it provides physical exams, cancer and other health screenings, as well as abortions. The clinics annually serve hundreds of patients covered by Medicaid, a state-federal health insurance program covering low-income Americans.

The Planned Parenthood affiliate and Medicaid patient Julie Edwards sued in 2018 after Republican Governor Henry McMaster ordered state officials to end the organization’s participation in the state Medicaid program by declaring any abortion provider unqualified to provide family planning services.

At issue is whether recipients of Medicaid have the right to challenge state determinations that a medical provider is not qualified to provide certain services. The justices in 2020 turned away an appeal by the state at an earlier stage of the case.

The Supreme Court’s June 8 ruling allowed an Indiana nursing home resident’s family to sue over his care at a government-run facility under the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act. The justices made clear, however, that lawsuits like the family’s, brought under an 1871 law that helps individuals challenge illegal acts by state officials, are the exception, not the rule.

In the South Carolina case, the 4th Circuit in 2022 ruled in Planned Parenthood’s favor, finding that both the right to sue under the 1871 law and the state’s move to defund the organization violated Edwards’ right under Medicaid to freely choose a qualified provider.

“To allow the state to disqualify Planned Parenthood would nullify Congress’s manifest intent to provide our less fortunate citizens the opportunity to select a medical provider of their choice, an opportunity that the most fortunate routinely enjoy,” the 4th Circuit said.

South Carolina is one of numerous Republican-led states that have moved to ban or restrict abortion since the Supreme Court in 2022 overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that had legalized the procedure nationwide.

South Carolina’s legislature in May passed a law to ban most abortions after about six weeks, but a judge blocked it. The law is a revised version of a previous ban that the state’s highest court struck down in January.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Will Dunham)