ICYMI: Would Defunding Planned Parenthood Violate the Constitution?

As the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to vote on whether to cut off federal money to Planned Parenthood a few weeks ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an opinion piece by constitutional law expert David S. Cohen, JD, a professor in Drexel’s Kline School of Law, in which he claims that defunding Planned Parenthood would violate the U.S. Constitution.

In the piece, Cohen argues that the Republican plan to remove funding from the organization amounts to a “bill of attainder,” which is forbidden by the Constitution.

A bill of attainder is a law that inflicts punishment upon a particular individual without a judicial trial, explains Cohen. “In other words, a bill of attainder is, as the Supreme Court has termed it, a ‘trial by legislature’ rather than by court,” he said.

According to Cohen, this most recent dust-up over federal funding for Planned Parenthood is very clearly an example of an unconstitutional bill of attainder: “Congress is singling out Planned Parenthood and punishing the organization for allegedly improper and illegal actions.” Cohen proceeds to lay out how all the requirements for a bill of attainder are present in this case.

The piece has since gone viral, garnering more than 50,000 shares on Facebook and nearly 400 comments to date.

Even the New York Times “took note” in their “Taking Note” blog, saying, “The framers would be mortified, and Americans today should be, too. Bills of attainder were prohibited in the first article of the Constitution precisely because they pose a threat to individual liberty and separation of powers. Fools rush in where framers feared to tread.”

Cohen is the co-author of a groundbreaking new book, “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism” (Oxford University Press, 2015), which examines how those associated with abortion care are harassed, threatened, stalked, picketed, sent hate mail and otherwise terrorized on a daily basis, and how these incidents are drastically increasing.

In the book, along with his co-author Krysten Connon, JD, an alumna of the Kline School of Law and an attorney in Philadelphia, Cohen explores the world of abortion providers and their families, and documents the constant antagonism they face. With nearly 90 extensive, in-depth interviews conducted across the country, the book marks the largest study ever to investigate both what happens to providers and how the law can better help them.

Prior to teaching, Cohen was a staff attorney at the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia and litigated cases involving abortion clinic safety, reproductive rights, Title IX and LGBT family law. Follow Cohen on Twitter at @dsc250.

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Cohen should contact Alex McKechnie at 215-895-2705 or ahm62@drexel.edu.