5th Circuit Hears Planned Parenthood’s License Appeal

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (Associated Press)

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Planned Parenthood has not followed the necessary steps to apply for a license to perform abortions at a New Orleans clinic so a federal lawsuit it filed alleging the state has delayed unnecessarily should be dismissed, a state attorney told a panel of three Fifth Circuit judges Wednesday.

Elizabeth Murrill, from Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office, called Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit an attempt by the organization to sidestep state requirements.

“Ultimately, what they are trying to do is circumvent the whole state licensing process,” Murrill said.

Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and Planned Parenthood Center for Choice, along with three women, filed the federal lawsuit at issue in February 2018, saying it has been attempting to provide abortion services for New Orleans-area women for a decade but has been thwarted in its attempts every step of the way.

The 92-page lawsuit chronicles struggles Planned Parenthood says it has faced during and since it completed construction of its new facility in 2016.

The obstacles range from “deceptively edited YouTube videos purporting to depict Planned Parenthood’s practices related to fetal tissue donation” to an arson attack on the new clinic to alleged Medicaid fraud.

U.S. District Judge John deGravelles of the Western District of Louisiana declined to dismiss the case last May. The state appealed. 

But Murrill said filing the lawsuit was erroneous because Planned Parenthood simply could have gone through the state-mandated process.

“The first thing they could have done is asked for a meeting with the secretary,” Murrill said. “They didn’t. Second thing, they could have asked for a license; they didn’t do that. They could have appealed any of this at state level and they didn’t. All of this is key, key, key.”

The judges at times seemed doubtful of the state’s position.

Judge Patrick Higginbotham, an appointee of Ronald Regan, told Murrill at the start of the hearing that it might appear the state had violated federal law.

“Stay with me,” he told Murrill, “Look at this timeline: If you look at the last ten years, it’s stall, stall, stall, stall, stall. When it is tried… you could have a federal violation. You would be in violation of federal law.”

Judge James Ho, a Trump appointee, also expressed skepticism of the state’s position.

“If federal due process means anything,” Ho told Murrill at one point, “it’s that states have to follow federal laws. You can’t touch that. Haven’t they alleged that you aren’t following the law?”

Rachel Shalev argued on behalf of Planned Parenthood and told the panel her client believes the state has overstepped federal law. 

The clinic that opened in 2016 offers many services for women but still does not provide abortion services. A license to provide abortion services would make it the first Planned Parenthood clinic in Louisiana ever to provide abortions, the lawsuit it filed says.

“Facing an increasingly hostile government environment, the number of abortion clinics in Louisiana has decreased drastically in recent years,” the lawsuit says. “As recently as 2010, Louisiana had seven abortion clinics. Now just three remain: one in Shreveport, one in Baton Rouge, and one in New Orleans. There is a dire need for additional clinics.”  

“For over two years now, Planned Parenthood Center for Choice has used every opportunity to advance the license through the state’s administrative process,” Planned Parenthood said in an emailed statement. “Each time being met by a new, unprecedented road block.”

The statement continued: “Legal filings include expert reports demonstrating how blocking Planned Parenthood’s abortion license would only exacerbate an already dire health care landscape. Louisiana ranks the worst state in the country for abortion access and the third poorest state in the Nation.”

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Patrice Sams-Abiodun of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast said in a statement. “While we have waited for this case to be decided, women and their families have experienced significant and irreversible consequences to their lives. Allowing Planned Parenthood to expand services to meet all reproductive health care needs could alleviate at least a few of the many known barriers to abortion access here in Louisiana.” 

The third judge on the panel, Jennifer Walter Elrod, is an appointee of George W. Bush. The panel did not indicate when or how they will rule.

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