Rust v. Sullivan

LOCATION:The Department of Health and Human Services

DOCKET NO.: 89-1391
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 500 US 173 (1991)
ARGUED: Oct 30, 1990
DECIDED: May 23, 1991

Kenneth W. Starr – Argued the cause for the respondent
Laurence H. Tribe – Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

The national government provides funds for family planning services (Title X). The Department of Health and Human Services issued regulations limiting the ability of Title X fund recipients to engage in abortion-related activities. Title X funds were to be used only to support preventive family planning services.


Do the regulations violate the First and Fifth Amendment rights of clients and health providers?

Media for Rust v. Sullivan

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 30, 1990 in Rust v. Sullivan

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 23, 1991 in Rust v. Sullivan

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinions of the Court to announce in three cases.

The first is No. 89-1391, Rust against Sullivan with a companion case.

Title X of the Public Health Service Act provides federal funding for preconception for family planning services.

Section 1008 of the Act specifies that none of the funds appropriated for family-planning services shall be used in programs where abortion is a method of family planning.

In 1988, the Secretary promulgated new regulations designed to provide clear and operational guidance to Title X grantees about how to preserve the distinction between Title X programs and abortion as a method of family planning.

These regulations prohibit Title X projects from engaging in counseling concerning referrals for and activities advocating abortion as a method of family planning and requires such projects to maintain an objective integrity and independence from the prohibited abortion activities by use of separate facilities, personnel, and accounting record.

Before the regulations could be put into effect, they were challenged by the petitioners in this case.

They were upheld in the lower courts but the other Courts of Appeals held otherwise so we granted certiorari to resolve the difference of opinion.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we uphold the Secretary’s regulations and affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

We hold the regulations are a permissible construction of Title X because Section 1008 is ambiguous and that it does not speak directly to the issue of abortion counseling referral and advocacy, the Secretary’s construction must be afforded substantial deference as the interpretation of the agency charged with administering the statute.

We also find that the regulations do not violate the First Amendment free speech rights of private Title X, recipients, their staffs or their patients, by impermissibly imposing viewpoint-discriminatory conditions on government subsidies.

There is no question but that Section 1008 itself is constitutional and the government is not required to fund the activities which are constitutionally protected.

We also hold that the regulations do not violate a woman’s Fifth Amendment right to choose whether to terminate her pregnancy.

The government, as we have held before, has no constitutional obligation to subsidies an activity merely because it is constitutionally protected.

Justice Blackmun has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Marshall joins and part 1 of which, Justice O’Connor joins, and in parts 2 and 3 of which, Justice Stevens joins; Justice Stevens and Justice O’Connor have also filed separate dissenting opinion.