By Kristin Arnold, THELAW.TV
As the presidential election draws closer, the economy is clearly the issue creating the most debate. However, both candidates are attempting to attract voters by highlighting their differences on social issues. President Obama has tried to make headway in the polls by challenging Republican nominee Mitt Romney's views on women's rights.
For example, Romney has said that, if elected, he will cut off all government funding to Planned Parenthood, a national sexual and reproductive health care provider. The former Massachusetts governor, like the vast majority of his fellow Republicans, opposes abortion, a service that Planned Parenthood provides.
Planned Parenthood is legally prohibited from using federal funds to perform abortions, but the organization provides many other services to women, such as cancer screenings and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. But it is the abortion issue that has stirred this federal fight – one that is also occurring at the state level.
States receive federal Title X funding, a large portion of which goes to fund Planned Parenthood clinics. Several states have moved to block that funding:
- Last year, North Carolina lawmakers voted to block Planned Parenthood from receiving federal Title X funds. A federal judge struck down that law, which means for now Planned Parenthood offices in North Carolina continue to receive federal funding.
- Also in 2011, the Texas legislature passed a law prohibiting any organization that performs abortions from receiving Title X funds. Since the law went into effect, dozens of family planning clinics have closed in that state.
Lawmakers write legislation and vote on whether to pass that legislation, but ultimately the fate of some controversial laws lay with judges whose job it is to interpret the laws. Although a judge's job is not designed to be a political one, the ideological leanings of federal judges often have everything to do with the outcome of certain cases. For instance, the judge who struck down the North Carolina law prohibiting Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funds was appointed by President Bill Clinton, who was a pro-choice Democrat. In Texas, however, the federal circuit court is dominated by conservative judges who are pro-life.
"Federal judges are often asked to rule on cases that involve social issues which are more ideological in nature," says attorney Martin Sweet of legal information website THELAW.TV. "For example, nowhere in the Constitution does it state when life begins. Therefore, a federal judge's particular beliefs often factor into a decision."
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to decide whether abortion should be legal in the United States. In its historic Roe vs. Wade decision, the high court struck down a Texas law outlawing abortion in all cases except those in which the woman's life was at risk. The decision legalized abortion all over America.
Conservatives have long sought to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and the presidential election could have an impact on whether that happens. Currently, five of the nine Supreme Court justices – who serve on the high court for life – were appointed by Republican presidents. Should Romney win the presidency, he could be in position to appoint a conservative Supreme Court justice or two should spots on the high court open up.
Of course, not every case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court. The majority of women's rights cases are decided at the state level. If the past year is any indication, government funding to Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide health care for women will be challenged in other states.
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