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Lawsuit: Planned Parenthood Cowrote California Regs Forcing Religious Groups To Pay For Abortions


Nearly five years ago, the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) forced religious organizations to pay for abortions in their health insurance plans, which blatantly violated their deeply-held religious convictions. Three churches joined in filing a lawsuit against the department, citing their First Amendment right to remain exempt from providing abortions. Litigation ensued.

Recently in discovery, attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the organization representing the churches, unearthed 2014 emails that show the department reversed the existing exemption and required that all insurance plans cover abortions largely due to lobbying from abortion giant Planned Parenthood’s political arm. Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, is a major contributor to Democratic politicians, but presents itself to the public as a provider of women’s care rather than a highly political operation.

Planned Parenthood Rewrites California’s Regs

Before the fall of 2014, a provision in health insurance plans in California exempted religious organizations from paying for abortion through health insurance. However, on August 22, 2014, Michelle Rouillard, director of California’s DMHC, said the department had made a mistake and would now require insurance companies to cover abortions—even for religious organizations.

What prompted such a change? After hearing that the state had allowed Catholic universities to be exempt from providing abortion coverage due to their faith, Planned Parenthood legislative advocates began persuading the DMHC to drop the exemption or face a mandate from new legislation. 

According to this Open Secrets information, in 2012, Planned Parenthood affiliates in California, specifically Mar Monte, donated thousands to Democrats running in federal races and against Republicans running in federal races.  According to this site, which tracks organizations that donate to local candidates, Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California hired 28 lobbyists over the last 12 years and donated thousands of dollars to more than a dozen Democrat candidates who won their state races. It’s easy to see why Planned Parenthood could threaten legislation if the DMHC wasn’t willing to provide a “regulatory fix.” After all, plenty of California legislators are in Planned Parenthood’s pockets.

The emails, dated from February to May 2014, detail numerous exchanges with DMHC officials and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California’s legal counsel and legislative advocates. The emails provide markers of meetings that occurred and show a gradual progression of lobbying efforts: They start with Planned Parenthood simply requesting to know why the state exempted religious universities from sponsoring abortions, then Planned Parenthood begins trying to persuade the DMHC to reverse their exemption, and ultimately the department even requests Planned Parenthood’s assistance to make this happen.

One such email, from a Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California legislative advocate Brianna K. Pittman, to Lark Park, a policy advisor to California’s governor at the time, Jerry Brown, states:

Just wanted to follow up on this email to set up a time to meet about PPAC’s priorities this year. While there, the most timely is a spot bill to address the issue that DM HC has approved, and Catholic Universities have been purchasing, large group employee health plans that exclude certain types of abortions. We met with Donna Campbell at HHS yesterday to discuss this and explore whether there is a regulatory/ administrative fix or if legislation is needed. I believe that HHS will be looking into the issue and talking with both DMHC and the Governor’s office, but I wanted to flag it and give you the background we shared with HHS. We have a spot bill to address the issue in case there is not a regulatory fix.

On March 11, Pittman, emails Park again:

Do you have time to sit down with us to discuss PPAC’s priority legislation this year? We have a handful of sponsored bills, including a bill we are looking into that would ensure employers can’t exclude abortion or other types of reproductive health care services from their employee health insurance plans. There have been a couple of Catholic Universities that are excluding certain types of services from their health plans, and it appears that DM HC has approved these plans at some level.

About a week later, Planned Parenthood executives offer their proposed agreement. Pittman emails Donna Campbell, deputy secretary at the Office of Legislative Affairs at the DMHC:

As we mentioned in the meeting, this is of significant concern to Planned Parenthood and many of the reproductive rights groups that we work closely with. While we would prefer to see this resolved without legislation, we are concerned with DMHC’s ability to find a solution, based on several months of conversation and the inconsistencies in DMHC policy on abortion coverage we uncovered in health plan approval documents, all of which led up to our meeting last week. We really want to find a comprehensive resolution to this issue, whether legislative or administrative … Our folks would feel positive about pursuing an administrative solution, in lieu of legislation this year, if the Administration would….not approve any further plans that exclude coverage for abortion or other reproductive health care service. This includes a clarification that there is no such thing as an elective or voluntary abortion exclusion. (Emphasis mine.)

In April, Campbell emails Pittman that they’re still working on the “‘updated’ interpretation, if you will” and a few months later, Rouillard announced no insurance company is exempt from paying for abortions for their employees, and since religious organizations were the only ones who were exempt, they were—and remain—specifically targeted.

California Violated First Amendment Rights On Purpose

While there was allegedly some confusion within the department, due to its size, about whether plans excluded abortion coverage, the emails show a concerted effort that went beyond repairing communication breakdowns. The emails show Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California were determined to ensure all insurance plans covered abortions, particularly those providers of religious organizations, since the only complaints about the exemption until that time had come from Catholic universities.

In a phone call, Jeremiah Galus, the lead attorney on the case, told me, “It was clear the department mandated abortion coverage in a way that seemed innocuous … when really it was quite planned.”

While this sounds a lot like the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case—the landmark Supreme Court decision that that allowed religious employers to decide not to fund abortifacients through company health insurance—Galus informed me that case was litigated under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law. Since this is a state issue, so far only in California, this will be litigated purely under the First Amendment.

It was already bad enough that the California department rescinded their original provision acknowledging religious organizations’ pro-life preferences and mandated a reversal of the abortion exemption. Planned Parenthood was standing over the the department demanding a “regulatory fix” to remove the abortion exemption. This is a grievous demonstration of Planned Parenthood’s political power, abused to deny religious organizations their First Amendment freedoms. California should not have been colluding with Planned Parenthood to make these changes, nor should they have cowered under the demands of an unethical organization to do so.

Planned Parenthood already advocates for something that’s not only harmful but an increasingly ho- button issue in American politics, particularly as more Americans favor abortion regulations than ever before and “heartbeat bills” continue to pepper state legislatures. Evidence that the organization successfully lobbied the cowardly California DMHC to infringe on the First Amendment rights of religious organizations under the guise of “reproductive rights for all” is shameful, but not surprising.