Democratic leadership has found a way to block President Trump’s domestic “gag rule” on abortion: The House will only pay for a federal family planning program that doesn’t include it.
The Trump Administration released a rule in March that said no federal family planning funds can go to any group that provides or even refers patients to abortions. That includes Planned Parenthood, which uses Title X family planning funds to subsidize birth control and STI tests for low-income patients. (Federal funds are already prohibited from paying for abortions.)
The rule, which was supposed to take effect this week, was temporarily blocked by a federal judge after Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit against it. And House Democrats, who mainly control the nation’s purse strings, included language in their annual Labor-HHS Appropriations Act on Monday that would permanently block the abortion gag rule by refusing to allocate funds toward implementing it.
“Democrats are standing up for women’s healthcare by pushing back on the Trump-Pence administration’s dangerous attacks on family planning services, including abortion and contraception,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Ct.). “Women know what is best for them and their families much better than this administration. That is why we are fighting to protect Title X and the millions of patients who get care through this program in this year’s Labor-HHS funding bill.”
This approach may face long odds in the Republican-controlled Senate. However, two key Senators, Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), have signaled they are open to blocking the change. The senators co-wrote a letter saying they oppose Trump’s abortion gag rule when it was first reported last year, and Collins said in February that she was considering legislative remedies to block its implementation.
“I oppose this misguided rule change that could significantly diminish access for women to crucial contraceptive services, which have been critical in reducing the number of abortions in our country over the past three decades,” she said in a statement.
The Senate Appropriations Committee drives the Senate’s negotiations with the House, and Labor-HHS appropriations bills typically do not go to the Senate floor before that conference takes place. So it’s likely that the House version will go to a full vote in the Senate, putting pressure on Republicans to either fund this decades-old family planning program as it has been carried out for decades or scrap the whole government funding bill in order to keep birth control subsidies from Planned Parenthood and other providers.
Trump also has the power to veto the appropriations bill, it wouldn’t be the first time he signed appropriations bills before that include provisions he didn’t like.
Not to mention, stripping funding from Planned Parenthood is broadly unpopular with voters, which is why Republicans have failed to do so even with control of both chambers of Congress.
“There’s a lot of good reason to think that this protection has a real shot at ultimately becoming law,” said Emily Stewart, Planned Parenthood’s vice president of public policy, who lobbied Democrats on this issue. “We believe we are standing on very firm ground.”
Title X has long been a bipartisan program. Then-Texas Rep. George H.W. Bush championed it in Congress in 1970, and Republican President Richard Nixon signed into law. The program provides nearly $300 million a year to clinics that provide family planning services to 4 million low-income men and women -- mostly people of color. Forty-one percent of Title X recipients receive those services from Planned Parenthood, which would be barred from the program under Trump’s new rule.
Congress has mandated since 1996 that pregnant women using the Title X program must receive “nondirective counseling” from medical providers, which means full, unbiased information about their options. U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian granted a preliminary injunction last week in response to lawsuits from family planning providers claiming that the gag rule violates federal law.
“It reverses long-standing positions of the Department without proper consideration of sound medical opinions and the economic and non-economic consequences,” he wrote.
Planned Parenthood president Leana Wen, a physician, thanked House Democrats in a statement on Wednesday for standing up to the Trump administration over birth control funds.
“The Title X gag rule is unethical, it’s dangerous, and it’s illegal,” she said. “Planned Parenthood applauds our health care champions in Congress who are taking action to stop the gag rule and protect health care for the 4 million people who depend on Title X health centers.”