Column: While judges protect anti-pregnancy programs, Trump keeps staffing them with religious fanatics

Following the president's orders to undermine women's health: Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services
(Susan Walsh / AP)

Supporters of women’s reproductive health programs got a bit of good news this week, when federal judges in Seattle and Washington, D.C., blocked the Trump administration’s effort to cut off all funding for teen pregnancy programs — adding up to four judges making virtually identical rulings in five cases over the last few weeks.

But they received a bigger dose of bad news Friday, when the administration published proposed regulations aimed at defunding Planned Parenthood and narrowing women’s access to abortion services.

Both events are related to the Trump administration’s wholesale attack on women’s reproductive rights. As we’ve reported, these have been placed in the hands of a passel of far-right religious fanatics who believe that the only suitable anti-pregnancy method is abstinence. They hold this view even though it’s contradicted by hard evidence.


HHS’s failure to articulate any explanation for its action, much less a reasoned one..., exemplifies arbitrary and capricious agency action meriting reversal.

— Federal Judge John C. Coughenour of Seattle

Just this week, Trump augmented this team with the appointment of Diane Foley, who has been the operator of “crisis prevention centers” in Colorado, as head of the Office of Population Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The office oversees Title X, which covers family planning programs, especially for low-income households, at HHS. “Crisis prevention centers” are known by abortion-rights advocates as “fake clinics,” because they masquerade as healthcare facilities but are really engaged chiefly in handing out anti-abortion information.

Here’s a rundown of the latest developments.

On Friday, federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the District of Columbia blocked HHS’ termination of funding for a teen pregnancy program in Texas. Her ruling is similar to one she issued May 11 on behalf of programs in Texas, Louisiana, and North and South Carolina.

On Tuesday, federal Judge John C. Coughenour of Seattle blocked HHS’ termination of funding for a teen pregnancy program in Washington state. Coughenour considered the program’s case so clear-cut he didn’t bother to schedule oral arguments.

At issue was HHS’ termination last year of five-year grants that had been issued to 81 teen pregnancy centers across the country. The grants, which totaled about $200 million a year, had been scheduled to June 30, 2020. Instead, the recipients were told they’d run only to June 30, 2018, effectively ending the program.


HHS didn’t explain its decision, but it plainly was linked to the presence at HHS of Charmaine Yoest, the former head of a prominent anti-abortion group who had been named assistant secretary for public affairs, and Valerie Huber, the former president of Ascend, a Washington group that advocates for abstinence-only sex education, who was installed as chief of staff to the assistant secretary for health.

Ruling in a lawsuit brought by King County, which encompasses Seattle, Coughenour wrote, “HHS’s failure to articulate any explanation for its action, much less a reasoned one based on relevant factors, exemplifies arbitrary and capricious agency action meriting reversal.” He ordered HHS to restore the program’s grant.

Coughenour’s and Jackson’s rulings parallel those in three other cases, covering programs in Baltimore; four southern states; and eastern Washington state, Idaho and Hawaii. In each case, a federal judge rejected HHS’ claim that it was within its rights to end the program funding for any reason and without explanation. In every case, they ruled instead that the HHS decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered that funding be reinstated. If you’re counting, the Trump administration is losing by a score of 0-4. Of the four judges, Coughenour was appointed by Ronald Reagan, Jackson by Barack Obama, and the two others by Obama and Bill Clinton.

Still, when it comes to undermining women’s reproductive health, the Trump administration has other weapons in its quiver. They include its proposed new Title X rule, published Friday. The rule would prohibit federal funds from going to family programs that even refer clients to abortion advice or counsel patients about the procedure; they’d be forbidden to “perform, promote, refer for, or support abortion as a method of family planning.”

This was properly labeled a “gag rule” in a letter sent Thursday to HHS Secretary Alex Azar by the Democratic Governors Assn. The governors called it a “reckless policy” that would “interfere in the doctor-patient relationship, gut women’s access to family planning services, and force medical professionals to knowingly withhold information from their patients.” They threatened to sue if HHS tries to make the rule final.

Who would administer the rule if it does go into effect? Diane Foley and her fellow abstinence-only advocates at HHS.


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9:52 a.m., June 2: This post has been updated with Friday’s ruling against the government by Judge Jackson of the District of Columbia.