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Professor David S. Cohen Critiques Congressional Planned Parenthood Vote in Inquirer Op-Ed

David S. Cohen with students

September 29, 2015

With its vote to defund Planned Parenthood, the U.S. House of Representatives violated the U.S. Constitution, Professor David S. Cohen wrote in an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sept. 28.

The vote amounted to “a bill of attainder,” which is “a law that inflicts punishment upon a particular individual without a judicial trial…as the Supreme Court has termed it, ‘a ‘trial by legislature’ rather than by court,” wrote Cohen, a constitutional scholar and co-author of "Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism." 

The constitution prohibits legislatures from enacting bills of attainder, Cohen explained, since legislative bodies do not provide the protections of a judicial trial and since such legislation conflicts with the separation of powers. 

“Generally speaking, the judiciary is responsible for trying, convicting and punishing individuals; legislatures are responsible for more broad-based policy,” Cohen wrote.

The House vote followed intense debate that followed the release of videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood sells aborted fetal body parts and alters abortion procedures to facilitate the sales.

While noting that the videos do not actually demonstrate that Planned Parenthood engaged in the alleged behavior, Cohen observes that if the organization had done so, the matter should be resolved by a court or administrative agency.  

In light of the Supreme Court’s finding in the Citizens United case that the First Amendment protects corporations as much as individuals, Cohen wrote, it’s hard to imagine that a majority of justices would uphold a law designed to defund Planned Parenthood.