Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a federal lawsuit in Spokane attempting to halt a Trump Administration rule that would prohibit government-funded health care providers from telling pregnant women where they can obtain an abortion even if they specifically ask for that information.
Ferguson threatened last month to file the suit, which was entered into the federal court record Tuesday in the Eastern District of Washington. Then on Thursday, a similar suit seeking to achieve the same legal action was filed in Spokane by the ACLU.
The suits seek to halt actions by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who adopted the rule that is scheduled to take effect on May 3. The new rule would prevent family planning clinics that receive federal funding, under a program called Title X, from referring women to abortion clinics.
The rule’s “harmful effects will fall particularly hard on uninsured patients and those in rural areas, especially in Eastern Washington, who in some cases will have no other feasible option for obtaining family planning services,” the state attorney general suit states. “As a result, thousands of Washingtonians who rely on Title X for contraception and other family planning services will lose access to those services, irreparably harming the public health and increasing health care costs in Washington.”
The new policy also would require family planning clinics receiving federal funds to be housed separately from abortion providers. That requirement would force many clinics to find new offices or undertake extensive remodels to comply, according to the suit filed by the ACLU.
Azar’s rule “violates Congress’s explicit requirements and threatens to decimate the country’s only dedicated federally funded program to provide family planning services,” wrote ACLU attorney Emily Chiang of Seattle. The new rule would prohibit “counseling from including any referrals to abortion care, even upon patients’ specific request.”
Chris Plante, policy director of the Christian group Family Policy Institute of Washington, told the Associated Press last month that the legal challenge was “wrongheaded.” He said the new policy “simply returns the Title X regulations back to their original legislative intent: ‘None of the funds appropriated under this title shall be used in programs where abortion is a method of family planning.’ ”
“A doctor can still talk about abortion,” Plante told the Associated Press. “The doctor simply can’t say, ‘There’s an abortion provider three streets down, turn left.’ ”
Ferguson announced Feb. 25 that his office would file the suit. He repeatedly has sued the Trump administration regarding other matters.
The legal actions seek to have a federal judge block the new policy from taking effect. Eastern Washington has 20 counties, 11 of which would be left without Title X providers, he said last month.
Congress enacted Title X in 1970 to improve access to family planning services for low-income women needing effective contraception and reproductive health care, the suit states. Congress then delegated authority to Health and Human Services to award the public grants to public and non-profit agencies to provide those services.
Since 1971, the state of Washington competed for those funds and has obtained several Title X grants that help fund some 85 clinics to serve residents in 32 of the state’s 39 counties.
“In 2017 alone, it enabled over 18,000 women to avoid unintended pregnancies and eliminated the need for over 6,000 abortions,” the state suit says, “and it saved the state over $113 million in health care costs.”
If Azar’s new rule is halted, those grants would provide family planning services to “98,000 Washingtonians in 2019,” according the suit filed by Assistant Attorneys General Jeffry Sprung, Kristin Beneski and Paul Crisalli.
The suit also claims that Azar’s policy violates the Affordable Care Act, which protects providers and patients from government interference. It would also run afoul of a federal law that requires doctors to provide information about abortion and prenatal care to patients in an unbiased manner, it claims.
Azar’s rule “reverses longstanding policies and agency interpretations … with no rational explanation or evidentiary support,” the suit states. Instead, the rule “adds unsupported, illogical, and counterproductive new requirements, while ignoring contrary record evidence and failing to consider the grave public health harms the new requirements cause.”
The suit also claims the rule would be unconstitutional because it links funding to the relinquishment of rights to free expression and association, violates principles of federalism and is overly vague.
Paul Dillon, spokesman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, said he applauded Ferguson for becoming the first state attorney general to legally fight the so-called “gag rule.” A similar federal suit was also filed Tuesday in Oregon.
Ferguson’s suit “lays out very clearly that this is never what the Title X program was intended for,” Dillon said. “The gag rule would completely gut family planning funding.”
Dillon said Azar’s rule change was an effort to specifically single out Planned Parenthood.
“There are 91,000 Title X patients in Washington state. Some 88 percent of those patients come to Planned Parenthood health centers,” Dillon said. “The gag rule would block those patients from seeing their provider of choice and block doctors and health care providers from being able to provide a full range of options of medical care.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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