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Rust v. Sullivan

Citation. 500 U.S. 173 (1991)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioners challenged the regulations under Title X of the Public Health Service Act alleging the violation of the First Amendment by impermissibly discriminating based on viewpoint because they prohibit all discussion about abortion as a lawful option.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Government can, without violating the Constitution, selectively fund a program to encourage certain activities it believes to be in the public interest, without at the same time funding an alternate program which seeks to deal with the problem in another way.


Regulations of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services limited the ability of recipients who accepted funding pursuant to Title X of the Public Health Service Act to engage in abortion related activities. The law provides federal funds for family-planning services but stated that none of the funds shall be used in programs where abortion is a method of family planning. The regulations stated that Title X funds should not be used for pregnancy care and expressly prohibited a Title X project from referring a pregnant woman to an abortion provider, even upon specific request.


Does the regulations refuse to provide funds in programs where abortion is a method of family planning violate the First Amendment?


No, the regulations do not violate the First Amendment because the Government can selectively fund a program to encourage family planning and is not at the same time funding an alternate program which seeks to deal with the problem in another way. In doing so, the Government has not discriminated on the basis of viewpoint. It has merely chosen to fund one activity to the exclusion of the other.


Justice Blackmun

While suppressing speech favorable to abortion with one hand, the regulations compel anti-abortion speech with the other. The regulations makes plain that “Title X projects are required to facilitate access to prenatal care and social services, including adoption services, that might be needed by the pregnant client, while making it abundantly clear that the project is not permitted to promote abortion by facilitating access to abortion through the referral process.” The regulations are explicitly viewpoint-based and violate the Constitution.


The Government is not denying a benefit to anyone, but is simply insisting that public funds be spent for the purposes for which they were authorized. The regulations do not force the Title X grantee to give up abortion-related speech. They merely require that the grantee keep such activities separate and distinct from Title X activities. Title x expressly distinguishes between a Title X grantee and a Title X project. Moreover, to hold that the Government unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of viewpoint when it chooses to fund a program dedicated to advance certain permissible goals, because the program in advancing those goals necessarily discourages alternate goals, would render numerous government programs constitutionally suspect. The petitioner’s assertion that if the government chooses to subsidize one protected right, it must subsidize analogous counterpart rights. But the Court has rejected this proposition. When the government appropriates public funds to establish a program it is entitled to define the limits of that program.

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