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Federal judge says Utah must continue funding Planned Parenthood

Governor Gary Herbert had ordered the state to cut off funding for STD testing and education programs in the wake of the fetal tissue video controversy.

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    An exam room at a Planned Parenthood center in South Austin, Texas.
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A federal court of appeals ruled on Tuesday that Utah must keep sending federal funding to Planned Parenthood, saying Republican governor Gary Herbert’s order to cut off cash for sexually transmitted disease testing and education programs may have infringed on the group’s constitutional rights.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver found the governor may have sought to punish the group after the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress secretly recorded videos, which purported to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the illegal sale of aborted fetal tissue to researchers. 

The release of the videos in July 2015 unleashed a torrent of anger from abortion opponents and sparked investigations in well over a dozen states. To date, no evidence has emerged that Planned Parenthood turned a profit on fetal tissue, which is illegal under a 1993 law, NPR reported. Last fall, the organization announced that it would no longer accept reimbursement for the costs of providing fetal tissue for medical research.

Governor Herbert, an opponent of abortion, had said in his order that the "callous" conduct of the executives in the videos offended him. State attorneys said in court that the governor had the power to terminate the contracts, and that Planned Parenthood was still under suspicion at the time of his decision. Spokesmen for the governor expressed disappointment with the decision and said Herbert would confer with the Utah attorney general to decide the state’s next legal steps.

Lawyers for the Utah branch of Planned Parenthood argued that it had never participated in fetal donation programs and filed emails showing that state health officials feared the cuts would defund STD and sex-education programs that serve thousands of teenagers and low-income people.

Karrie Galloway, chief executive of Utah's Planned Parenthood, hailed the decision as a "major victory" for patients in Utah. "Our doors are open today and they will be tomorrow – no matter what," she said.

Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest abortion provider, terminating 323,999 pregnancies in 2014. But the group estimates that abortion services only make up 3% of its work, with contraception and STD testing and treatment composing the bulk of it.

In 2015, 56 percent of the Utah residents said they viewed the organization unfavorably. Their responses generally reflected party allegiances: 79 percent of Republicans said they disapproved of Planned Parenthood, compared to 79 percent of Democrats who held favorable views. Unaffiliated voters were more split: 50 percent unfavorable and 43 percent favorable. 

Passions over abortion have cooled somewhat since the videos' release in 2015, when Planned Parenthood officials blamed “hateful rhetoric and smear campaigns” for an environment that “breeds acts of violence.” In November of that year, three people were killed in a mass shooting at a facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., and in ensuing days, the Senate voted to defund the group. Two employees of the Center for Medical Progress, which filmed the videos, have since been indicted on a charges of tampering with a government records and a separate charge related to purchasing human organs. 

The attack in Colorado spoke to “the lack of anything approaching a middle ground in the abortion debate," The Christian Science Monitor reported afterward, "despite the fact that most Americans have complex and often contradictory views on the subject that make them antiabortion in some ways and pro-abortion rights in others."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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