Abortion 'Gag Rule' Heads To Federal District Court In Maine

Apr 24, 2019

A battle to block what critics call the Trump Administration's “gag rule” on abortions from going into effect was heard in federal District Court in Bangor Wednesday. 

Maine Family Planning contends that the new rule will force the organization to close at least half of their clinics across the state. But U.S. Department of Justice attorneys say the new rule brings clinics into compliance with federal law.

Patty Wight was at Wednesday’s hearing. She joined Ed Morin on All Things Considered.

Morin: Patty, tell us what this new rule is about.

Wight: The rule applies to the Title X program. It's a federal program that distributes grants to clinics to help low income patients access family planning services. The new rule, which was issued a couple months ago, effectively blocks clinics that also offer abortions from receiving these funds.

How so?

The rule would require clinics that receive Title X funds to erect complete physical and financial separation between abortion and other services. That means separate entrances, separate staff, separate medical records, websites, phone numbers. It would also bar providers from giving referrals for abortions. The rule also eliminates the current requirement that clinics offer patients non-directive counseling on abortion among the range of options available to them.

Why is Maine Family Planning seeking an injunction to block the rule from going into effect?

Maine Family Planning is the sole Title X grantee in Maine. They distribute about $2-million a year to clinics across the state, including 18 of their own. They say these changes would force them to close between 50 to 85 percent of those clinics. They're represented in this case by the Center for Reproductive Rights, where Emily Nestler is an attorney. She says this new rule violates the rights of patients and providers. For patients, she says it places an undue burden on a woman's right to abortion. For providers, it violates their right to free speech. Nestler also said there's not proper justification for the new rule.

Emily Nestler, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, spoke outside the courthouse after the hearing
Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public

Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Nestler said Title X has been a very successful program, where clinics have expanded access to care for the past 50 years:

"This is not a profit center,” said Nestler. “There's not a million people who want to step in and do this. And basically, what this rule does is deliberately punish them because they also provide abortion services."

What did the Trump Administration say was the basis for the rule change?

Attorneys from the Department of Justice were not available to talk after the hearing, but in court they argued that that the new rule brings clinics into compliance with the Title X program. It's important to note that federal money cannot be used for abortions except in extreme circumstances. But the attorney said that the Trump Administration wants to ensure that Title X funds are not indirectly being used to support abortion clinics.

And this is not the first time this issue has been in court.

There was a similar rule change under President Reagan, and that was upheld by the Supreme Court. But it never went into effect because President Clinton took office and issued what's in place today. So there is Supreme Court precedent that upholds a similar rule to what the Trump Administration has issued.

But there are multiple legal challenges to this new rule, including a case in Oregon brought by the American Medical Association, Planned Parenthood and 20 states and the District of Columbia. And on Tuesday, the judge in that case announced that he'll issue and injunction to the Title X rule. But it's unclear whether that will be nationwide.

What's the scope of the injunction Maine Family Planning is seeking?

They're asking for a nationwide injunction. Time is of the essence, because the rule is due to begin taking effect on May 3. Given that timeline, Judge Lance Walker says he'll issue a decision in the Maine Family Planning case within the next few days.