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‘Not a scintilla of evidence’ of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood: Federal judge blocks Texas defunding effort

Planned Parenthood South Austin Health Center is seen in Austin, Texas, U.S. on June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Ilana Panich-Linsman/File Photo

A federal judge on Tuesday ruled Texas officials cannot cut off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood, allowing the organization to continue providing reimbursed services — at least temporarily — to the 12,500 Texas Medicaid patients who rely on it.

The case stemmed from an effort by Texas officials to punish Planned Parenthood based on a heavily edited and controversial undercover video made by two antiabortion activists purporting to show that the organization illegally sells fetal tissue left over from abortions for scientific research.

U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks, in Austin, did not hold back in his 42-page opinion, writing that Texas officials lacked “even a scintilla of evidence” to conclude that Planned Parenthood committed wrongdoing and warranted termination from the Medicaid program.

“A secretly recorded video, fake names, a grand jury indictment, congressional investigations — these are the building blocks of a best-selling novel rather than a case concerning interplay of federal and state authority through the Medicaid program,” Sparks wrote in the ruling. “Yet, rather than a villain plotting to take over the world, the subject of this case is the State of Texas’s efforts to expel a group of health care providers from a social health care program for families and individuals with limited resources.”

The videos recorded in 2015 led to Republican attempts nationwide to defund Planned Parenthood. In December, a year after announcing plans to remove the organization from the Medicaid program, the inspector general for the Health and Human Services Commission in Texas handed Planned Parenthood a final termination notice. Planned Parenthood sued to continue to receive the Medicaid funds, and Sparks blocked the termination for one month while he weighed evidence.

Sparks ruled that cutting off funding would create “irreparable injury” by disrupting the health care of some of the state’s most vulnerable patients, eliminating 30 health centers across Texas from the Medicaid program, which serves the poor. The decision made Texas at least the sixth state where federal courts have maintained Planned Parenthood eligibility for Medicaid reimbursements for non-abortion services, the Associated Press reported. Similar efforts have been blocked in Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office would appeal the ruling, claiming that the undercover videos “exposed a brazen willingness by Planned Parenthood officials to traffic in fetal body parts, as well as manipulate the timing and method of an abortion.”

“Even the remains of the most vicious criminals are treated with respect,” Paxton wrote in a statement. “But the children who never had a chance at life become so-called medical waste or, alternatively, a commodity to be bartered for. No taxpayer in Texas should have to subsidize this repugnant and illegal conduct. We should never lose sight of the fact that, as long as abortion is legal in the United States, the potential for these types of horrors will continue.”

The case will head to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and without a successful appeal, the temporary block will stay in place at least until a full trial is concluded.

Lingering questions remain about the future of Planned Parenthood, as activists worry that Trump and emboldened Republicans in Congress will further restrict some abortion procedures and slash funding for Planned Parenthood.

Last month, Trump banned U.S. funding to international groups that perform abortions or even provide information about abortions. The newly confirmed health secretary, Tom Price, has supported cutting off federal funds from health-care plans that cover abortions. Last week, House Republicans passed a resolution that would allow states to divert federal money from Planned Parenthood to community health clinics.

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Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, serves more than a third of the roughly 4 million Americans who receive benefits through the Title X program. In Texas, it offers Medicaid patients contraception and contraceptive counseling, breast cancer screening, cervical cancer screening and treatment, sexually transmitted disease (STD) testing and treatment, pregnancy testing and counseling, as well as other services.

The court fight over the secretly recorded videos began in April 2015, when two individuals made site visits at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast headquarters, using fake names to portray themselves as a company interested in connecting Planned Parenthood health centers with research studies. The two people were actually antiabortion activists affiliated with the Center for Medical Progress. While touring the facilities, they recorded a series of undercover videos, supposedly showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing plans to sell aborted human fetal tissue and body parts.

Investigations in 13 states — including Texas — into the videos have resulted in no criminal charges. Planned Parenthood officials have said the videos were deceptively edited, and have denied any accusations that they sell fetal tissue. Attorneys for the provider said it receives reimbursements only for time, storage of tissue and the sterile equipment used in procedures from which tissue will be donated for research, the Dallas Morning News reported.

A grand jury indicted the activists, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt for tampering with government records by using fake driver’s licenses to conceal their identities. The charges were later dismissed.

At the same time, the grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of misusing fetal tissue.

In summarizing the video “for those not blessed with eight free hours to watch it,” Sparks wrote that the vast majority of the footage concerns conversations
between Melissa Farrell, research director with Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, and the two antiabortion activists during the April 9, 2015 site visit, and consists of confusing and ambiguous dialogue that is open to interpretation.

Sparks said the court found the state’s inspector general had no evidence to support the allegation that the organization had a history of altering and a willingness to alter abortion procedures for research purposes.

“The Inspector General relied on an unauthenticated video and the advice of an orthopedic surgeon to conclude PPGC violated medical and ethical standards related to abortion procedures,” Sparks wrote. After reviewing the video in its entirety, and hearing the Inspector General’s testimony, the court found no evidence that the Planned Parenthood officials violated any medical or ethical standard.

Yvonne Gutierrez, executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, said the provider was thrilled with the court’s decision to stop the state from barring thousands of Texans from the provider, the Dallas Morning News reported.

“Attempting to shut down Planned Parenthood health centers in Texas is part of an extreme agenda to ban abortion, and politicians are willing to strip away access to birth control, cancer screenings, and other vital health care in the process.”

In a statement, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, also praised the decision, calling it a “victory for Texas women. For Texas families. For all Texans.”

“Thanks to this decision, Planned Parenthood patients can continue to get the care they need,” Richards said. “We will never back down and we will never stop fighting for our patients.”

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards pledged to the crowds at the Women's March on Washington that the organization would remain open. (Video: The Washington Post)