Federally funded family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood, are defying the Trump administration’s ban on referring women for abortions, drawing a line against what they say amounts to keeping patients in the dark about legitimate healthcare options.
“We are not going to comply with a regulation that would require healthcare providers to not give full information to their patients,” Jacqueline Ayers, the group’s top lobbyist, said Tuesday. “We believe as a healthcare provider it is wrong to withhold healthcare information from patients.”
The fallout from the confrontation between the Trump administration and the clinics remains to be seen, but groups such as the American Medical Assn. have been warning that many low-income women could lose access to basic services like contraception. Planned Parenthood’s announcement came on a day when it also replaced its president, although it’s unclear whether there was any connection.
The Department of Health and Human Services formally notified the clinics Monday that it will begin enforcing the new regulation banning abortion referrals, along with a requirement that clinics maintain separate finances from facilities that provide abortions. The rule is being challenged in federal court, but the administration says there is no legal obstacle to enforcing it.
It’s part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to remake government policy on reproductive health.
There was no immediate response from HHS to Planned Parenthood’s decision, which came as the group abruptly announced the departure of its president, physician Leana Wen. Political organizer Alexis McGill Johnson was named acting president.
With about 400 affiliated clinics, Planned Parenthood is the largest provider in the federal family planning program for low-income women, known as Title X. The program does not pay for abortions, but until now clinics had been able to refer women for the procedure. Planned Parenthood clinics have long been a target for religious and social conservatives closely allied with the administration because the clinics separately provide abortions.
Planned Parenthood acted after its Illinois affiliate and an independent provider, Maine Family Planning, announced they were dropping out of the federal program.
Ayers said Tuesday that Planned Parenthood clinics will stop accepting federal money and tap emergency funding as they press Congress and the courts to reverse the administration’s ban. She said she’s unsure how long that backup funding will last.
The federal family planning program serves about 4 million women annually through independent clinics. Taxpayers provide about $260 million a year in grants to clinics. But that money by law cannot be used pay for abortions.
The family planning rule is being challenged around the country in court cases that have yet to resolve the core issues involved. However, a nationwide preliminary injunction that had blocked the administration was recently set aside, allowing HHS to begin enforcing the rule.
Other administration regulations tangled up in court would allow employers to opt out of offering free birth control to female workers on the basis of religious or moral objections and would grant healthcare professionals wider leeway to opt out of procedures that offend their religious or moral scruples.
Abortion opponents welcomed the Trump administration’s action.
“Ending the connection between abortion and family planning is a victory for common-sense health care,” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, which wants to abolish abortion, said in a statement.
Religious and social conservatives are a bulwark of President Trump’s political base.
Abortion is a legal medical procedure, but federal laws prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortions except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the woman.
Under the Trump administration’s rule, clinic staff would still be permitted to discuss abortion with clients, along with other options. However, that would no longer be required.
Another requirement that clinics and abortion providers cannot share physical space would take effect next year.
The AMA is among the professional groups opposed to the administration’s policy, saying it could affect low-income women’s access to basic medical care, including birth control, cancer screenings, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
Religious conservatives see the regulation as a means to end what they call an indirect taxpayer subsidy of abortion providers.
Although abortion remains politically divisive, the U.S. abortion rate has dropped significantly, from about 29 per 1,000 women of reproductive age in 1980 to about 15 per 1,000 in 2014. Better contraception, fewer unintended pregnancies and state restrictions may have played a role, according to a recent scientific report. Polls show most Americans do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.
The Trump administration’s policy echoes a Reagan-era regulation that barred clinics from even discussing abortion with women. It never went into effect as written, although the Supreme Court ruled it was appropriate.
The policy was rescinded under President Clinton, and a new rule took effect requiring “nondirective” counseling to include a full range of options for women. The Trump administration is now rolling back the Clinton requirement.