- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 1, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas — A federal appeals judge stepped into the fight over the Texas Women’s Health Program on Tuesday, saying he wanted to hear arguments on whether the state should be prevented from enforcing a law that bans Planned Parenthood from participating in the program.

Less than 24 hours after a federal judge in Austin ordered Texas not to enforce a rule banning clinics associated with abortion providers from receiving state funds, 5th Circuit Appeals Judge Jerry Smith granted Texas an emergency stay lifting the Austin court’s order.

Judge Smith, a 1987 appointee of President Reagan, gave attorneys representing the eight Planned Parenthood organizations involved in the suit until 5 p.m. on Tuesday to present their arguments.

“We are disappointed in the stay granted last night,” said Sarah Wheat, interim CEO of Planned Parenthood of Austin Family Planning. “When presented with both sides, the District Court agreed the rule was likely unconstitutional, and that implementation would cause a serious problem with health care access for Texas women.”

Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday that the order allows the agency to exclude the clinics from the program effective today. She said women having trouble locating a health care provider should contact the agency.

In court papers, the state’s attorneys argued that the state may ban groups from participating in the Women’s Health Program that don’t agree with the state’s policies.

The emergency stay is the latest development in a dispute over which criteria Texas can impose on a health care provider that participates in state-funded programs for the poor.

When Texas lawmakers renewed the Women’s Health Program last year, they made it clear they didn’t want any state funding to go to clinics affiliated with abortion providers.

Earlier this year, Planned Parenthood filed a federal lawsuit saying the rule violates the group’s rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association. On Monday, they celebrated a victory when Judge Lee Yeakel, a 2003 appointee of President Bush, agreed that they had a case and ordered the state not to enforce the law until he could hold a trial.

The federal government funded 90 percent of the $40 million program, but cut funding last month because officials said the new rule violated federal law.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has filed a federal lawsuit in Washington calling that decision a violation of state’s rights. Gov. Rick Perry ordered the state Department of Health and Human Services to find funds to continue the program. Allowing it to end would cost the state more that continuing it because it would lead to a spike in unplanned pregnancies.

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