The operators of 15 abortion clinics sued Pennsylvania on Wednesday in a bid to persuade state courts to reverse a decades-old decision upholding limits on the use of state Medicaid dollars to cover abortions.
The lawsuit, filed in Commonwealth Court, seeks an order requiring the state's Medicaid program to begin covering abortions, without restriction, and contends that Pennsylvania's 1982 law violates the constitutional equal protection rights of low-income women.
The abortion clinics cite the same state constitutional provisions as the lawsuit decided by the state Supreme Court in 1985. That court upheld Pennsylvania's ban on the use of state dollars for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
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"What's different is the law's evolved," said Susan Frietsche, the senior staff attorney at the Women's Law Project, a Pennsylvania-based public interest law center. "Other states have gone a different way that makes more sense and we have now got some empirical evidence that we didn't have in 1985. People have studied what happens to low-income women who are deprived of access to abortion and it is devastating to their lives."
Pennsylvania's law is nearly identical to federal limits on the use of federal Medicaid dollars.
Sixteen other states allow public dollars to cover abortions beyond those exceptions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a policy and research organization that supports abortion rights.
Some other states' courts have ruled that denying Medicaid coverage for abortions is a form of sex discrimination, Frietsche said, while the court's interpretation of Pennsylvania's protections against sex discrimination has evolved.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday contends that denying Medicaid coverage of an abortion forces low-income women to put off basic needs to pay for it or carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Carrying to term against a woman's will could worsen her pre-existing health conditions or interfere with her job prospects or education, the lawsuit argues.
Gov. Tom Wolf's office declined comment. Wolf, a Democrat whose administration oversees Pennsylvania's $31 billion Medicaid program, supports abortion rights.
Leaders of the Legislature's Republican majorities stayed silent about the lawsuit Wednesday. The state Legislature has voted solidly in favor of anti-abortion legislation in recent years and, given Wolf's support for abortion rights, it may be up to lawmakers to mount a legal defense of Pennsylvania's law.
In 1985, as now, the state Supreme Court had a Democratic majority. However, at that time, the entire seven-member high court was all men. Now, it has three women on it.
The court's 1985 ruling found that the state had a legitimate "interest in preserving potential life" by limiting Medicaid's coverage of abortions and was not interfering with a woman's right to an abortion.
It also rejected the argument that the limits violated a constitution provision protecting equal rights on the basis of sex, saying that "there are certain laws which necessarily will only affect one sex."