For the Record

Michigan Breaks New Ground in Restricting Family Planning Funds

Adam Sonfield, Guttmacher Institute Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher Institute
The time is now. Will you stand up for reproductive health and rights?

First published online:

With varying degrees of success over the past 25 years, antiabortion state and federal lawmakers have advocated a range of restrictions designed to keep public funds for family planning from organizations that have anything to do with abortion. A new chapter in this saga began in May, when Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) signed into law a measure that takes the inventive tact of creating a priority system for distributing family planning funds.

Existing Michigan law, enacted annually since 1994 as part of the appropriations process, already prohibits state pregnancy prevention funds from being "used to provide abortion counseling, referrals, or services." The newly enacted law, which becomes effective next spring, goes well beyond this prohibition; it establishes a funding formula for state as well as federal Title X family planning grants that punishes organizations for their privately supported abortion-related activities. In essence, organizations are given a "demerit" for engaging in any one of three abortion-related activities, and groups with the fewest demerits are to be awarded the grants. The offending activities are performing abortions, except to save a pregnant woman's life; providing referrals for abortion; or maintaining in writing that "abortion is considered part of a continuum of family planning or reproductive health services."

The new law does include a few caveats. First, it allows a potential family planning grantee to be affiliated, without penalty, with an organization that engages in any of the demerit-worthy activities, as long as an acceptable "wall of separation" exists between the two entities. Second, any activities required by federal law as a condition for receiving federal funding are not to be counted against a potential grantee; this would include Title X's requirement that fund recipients provide a woman facing an unintended pregnancy with nondirective counseling about all of her legal medical options, as well as contact information for providers of these services on request. Finally, the law stipulates that grants must be awarded to ensure adequate availability across the state and that grantees must be determined by the state health department to be "capable of providing the quality and quantity of services required" at appropriate costs. How any of these caveats will play out may depend on the attitude of the state administration that will be elected into office this November.

Over the past decade, five other states—Colorado, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—have adopted policies that directly prohibit recipients of public family planning funds from performing certain abortion-related activities ("Efforts Renew to Deny Family Planning Funds to Agencies That Offer Abortions," TGR, February 2002, page 4). Advocates of Michigan's new priority system hope that by merely putting some potential grantees at a disadvantage in receiving funding, rather than flat-out declaring them ineligible because of their abortion-related activities, the new law will be met with less resistance and be better able to withstand possible court challenges. Challenges in Colorado and Missouri, for example, have lasted years. Already, the priority system is being looked to as a model in other states. But while the Michigan approach may be somewhat more subtle than those taken by other states, its goals are clear: to convey to the public the message that organizations involved in legal and medically appropriate abortion-related activities are somehow unfit—or at least, less fit than those not so involved—to receive public funds and, of course, to actually deny them the funds if they refuse to change their ways.

A. Sonfield and E. Nash