A federal judge in Washington state on Thursday blocked a Trump administration rule that would have overhauled the Title X federal family planning program and cut funding to health providers that offer abortions or abortion referrals.
U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Bastian, an Obama appointee, issued a nationwide injunction staying the changes from taking effect while several other legal challenges proceed. Bastian heard several hours of arguments Thursday from Washington state and the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association challenging the administration’s Title X funding rule and arguments from the Justice Department defending the changes.
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The rule was set to take effect May 3 and would have stripped Title X funding from providers that refer patients to an abortion provider even if they ask for such a referral — a provision critics have labeled a “gag rule.” It would have the effect of excluding Planned Parenthood, which currently serves about 40 percent of all Title X patients nationwide, while funding conservative groups opposed to contraception and abortion that promote abstinence and natural family planning methods.
Nearly two dozen states and several medical provider and advocacy groups have sued to block the rule. Some of those states as well as all Planned Parenthood affiliates had also threatened to drop out of the Title X program entirely if the rule takes effect, forfeiting millions of dollars and leaving low-income women in many areas with few or no options for free or subsidized care.
Ruth Harlow, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project who represented a coalition of about 750 Title X-funded organizations, said the judge seemed sympathetic to her argument that the rule was contrary to the purpose of Title X and was arbitrary and capricious. But she added, “This is just temporary. We will be fighting this in the next phase to make this permanent and make sure this rule is never resurrected.”
An HHS spokesperson declined to comment on the injunction, citing the pending litigation.
The ruling came two days after another federal judge in Oregon announced his intent to put the new rules on hold, siding with a coalition of Democratic attorneys general, Planned Parenthood and the American Medical Association. Judge Michael McShane called the administration’s policies a “ham-fisted” approach that would “reduce health outcomes” but has not yet indicated whether his injunction will be nationwide or more limited.
“We won’t stand by and let the government control what doctors can and can’t say to their patients,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, the lead challenger in the multi-state lawsuit that resulted in the first injunction, told POLITICO.
It’s possible that other courts in California and Maine that heard similar requests for an injunction could issue more stays in the days to come.
The states and groups challenging the Trump administration rule argued it would violate both state and federal law — particularly parts of the Affordable Care Act that prohibit the government from interfering with patient-provider communications “regarding a full range of treatment options” or restricting providers’ ability to disclose “all relevant information to patients making health care decisions.” Some of the challengers also argue the rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act and the First Amendment.
The Trump administration countered that the Supreme Court upheld a similar Title X rule issued by the Reagan administration that was never fully implemented, and that a handful of provisions in the Affordable Care Act that do not explicitly mention abortion cannot override that precedent. The Justice Department also argued the rule is justified because, despite a longstanding ban on federal funding for abortions, groups like Planned Parenthood could “co-mingle” their federal income for contraceptive services and screenings with other funding used for abortion care.