ACLU, Planned Parenthood challenge Iowa law that restricts funding for sex education

Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, (left) and Erin Davison-Rippey, Planned Parenthood's state executive di
Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, (left) and Erin Davison-Rippey, Planned Parenthood’s state executive director for Iowa, answer reporters’ questions during a Wednesday news conference focusing on a lawsuit the ACLU of Iowa filed on behalf of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland seeking to block legislation signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds that would exclude Planned Parenthood from receiving government funding to provide sex education for young students in Iowa schools next fiscal year. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A lawsuit filed Wednesday in state court seeks to block legislation signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds that would exclude Planned Parenthood of the Heartland from receiving government funds to provide sex education for young students in Iowa schools.

The lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa on behalf of Planned Parenthood, asks the court to declare the law unconstitutional. The petition requests that the court temporarily block implementation of the law, which is slated to take effect July 1, and further seeks to permanently enjoin state officials from enforcing the challenged provisions of House File 766.

Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said a section of the bill that restricts government funding for sex education, personal responsibility education or community adolescent pregnancy prevention program services to a provider that performs or promotes abortion specifically “targets Planned Parenthood for defunding based on its unrelated provision of essential abortion services to Iowa women, as well as based on its exercise of free speech about abortion rights.”

Bettis Austen said the law not only would adversely affect Planned Parenthood but it also “impacts the at-risk youth who are relying on Planned Parenthood of the Heartland to provide these services.” She said the lawsuit was filed because state officials are expected soon to make decisions for fiscal 2020 funding.

“Because of these young people, today we fight,” said Erin Davison-Rippey, Planned Parenthood’s state executive director for Iowa.

She said thousands of young Iowans have benefited from effective age-appropriate, research-based sex education classes taught in 31 school districts and through a dozen community-based organizations this past year. To exclude providers based on the abortion issue is counterproductive because that likely would increase unintended pregnancies, Davison-Rippey said.

“Planned Parenthood has been the trusted provider of comprehensive sex education in Iowa for decades — and for nearly 15 years under one of the federal programs that the Reynolds administration just defunded,” she said. “By signing this law, the governor is undermining the health of young people in our state, making it more difficult for them to get the tools they need to make healthy decisions, now and for a lifetime.”


In responding to the litigation, Reynolds’ spokesman Pat Garrett said the governor “is 100 percent pro-life and believes taxpayer dollars shouldn’t fund an organization that provides abortion.”

The lawsuit argues that the law is unconstitutional under the Iowa Constitution because it violates free speech by punishing Planned Parenthood for its constitutionally protected advocacy for abortion rights and affiliation with other organizations that also advocate for abortion rights or provide abortion services.

The challenged provision of House File 766 also violates equal protection by singling out abortion providers for defunding and separately violates due process by denying government funds to Planned Parenthood because the organization provides access for Iowa women to exercise their constitutionally protected right to safe and legal abortion care, the lawsuit states.

Two sections of HF 766 bar any organization that “provides or promotes abortion” from receiving Personal Responsibility Education Program grants and Community Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention grant funding — grants that support sex education and related services for youths in Iowa and requires grant recipients to use state-approved curriculum.

Planned Parenthood officials say they have successfully competed for these funds and used the state-approved curriculum to provide sex education to tens of thousands of Iowa youths since 2005. According to the state Department of Public Health, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland received an $85,000 Personal Responsibility Education Program grant in fiscal 2019 covering Polk, Pottawattamie and Woodbury counties.

At this time, Planned Parenthood officials said they have grant applications pending for the coming fiscal year for programs where award recipients are expected to be announced soon. Davison-Rippey said sex education grant funds are segregated within the organization’s finances from other services.

“Unfortunately, this defunding is part of a nationwide effort to substitute narrow ideology for facts, science and broadly held expert opinion. This effort will have a lasting and damaging effect on our young people,” said Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States, which includes Iowa.

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