Supreme Court strikes down anti-abortion pledge for aid grantees

The United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. The High Court ruled the 'anti-prostitution pledge' condition for aid funding as unconstitutional. Photo by: Marc Benton / CC BY-NC-SA

The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down an anti-abortion pledge on U.S. government grantees implementing HIV projects abroad — a decision met with overwhelming praise from within the global aid community.

The ruling didn’t affect the government’s ability to prohibit the use of its funds for abortion-related services or other purposes. Forcing grantees to adopt a policy explicitly opposing abortions and sex trafficking violates an organization’s free speech right under the First Amendment, a majority of judges ruled.

At issue was a 2003 law which the administration has maintained did not affect funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Health Organization, International AIDS Vaccine Initiative or any U.N. agency.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Health and Human Services, under President George W. Bush, subsequently issued a policy allowing grantees to retain funding while working with other organizations not bound by the pledge.

Critics fear that adopting such a policy may alienate certain host governments and diminish the effectiveness of some of their aid programs, or that it may censor privately funded discussions. A majority of Supreme Court judges (6-2) agreed.

In their opinion, the judges also cited a recent case that has become well-known in global health circles for challenging, unsuccessfully, another Bush administration policy — rolled back by President Barack Obama — that prohibited Title X federal funds from being “used in programs where abortion is a method of family planning.” Because the regulations did not “prohibit the recipient from engaging in the protected conduct outside the scope of the federally funded program,” they did not run afoul of the First Amendment, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

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    Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.