BALTIMORE (CN) — Abortion rights advocates are applauding a limited but strongly worded ruling out of Maryland that blocked a Trump administration policy barring federally funded clinics from referring women for abortions.
"We thank the court for recognizing the harm of the Trump-Pence administration's gag rule on Title X, which makes it harder for people with low incomes to get birth control and preventive care,” Planned Parenthood of Maryland CEO Karen J. Nelson said in a statement to Courthouse News on Tuesday.
Nelson stressed that while the group is grateful for the ruling that bars the policy’s implementation in Maryland, it is still concerned about the rule’s effect across the rest of the country.
“Planned Parenthood is committed to providing honest, accurate, and complete medical information,” she said, noting the policy blocks doctors from informing patients of possible services like abortion. “It is an outrage that the Trump-Pence administration, through the gag rule, delivers Americans seeking health care something less."
The ruling issued late Friday by U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett, a George W. Bush appointee, is part of a long-running dispute in Maryland. According to case filings, the so-called abortion gag rule impacts 16,000 patients in Baltimore as it limited access to over $1.4 million in clinic funding every year.
The judge found the policy “arbitrary and capricious, being inadequately justified and objectively unreasonable.”
The case, filed by the city last year on behalf of its health clinics, has gone to the Fourth Circuit and back, but Friday’s decision is still being hailed as a win even if it only impacts clinics in Maryland.
In March 2019, the Trump administration introduced the rule barring any Title X funds from going to programs “where abortion is a method of family planning.” The policy specifically forbids clinics receiving the federal funds from discussing abortion with patients and requires referring pregnant women to prenatal care, even if they plan to end their pregnancies.
The Department of Health and Human Services has said criticism of the policy has been overblown and rejected the “gag rule” description. The rule does make exceptions for emergency cases.
Baltimore was granted an injunction against the rule, but the Fourth Circuit heard oral arguments last July and stayed that order. The Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court has since heard an interlocutory appeal to that preliminary injunction and while an order has yet to be issued, oral arguments indicated only one member of the three-judge panel seemed open to reversing the stay.
Friday’s opinion did nix some of the city’s claims, but still blocked the entire rule from being implemented in Maryland and found the controversial section could not be severed from the whole policy.
Abortion rights advocates across the country have filed suit to block the abortion gag rule, and input from the medical community stands in stark contrast to the government’s argument that the rule is less impactful than reported.
“The administrative record reflects that literally every major medical organization in the United States has opposed implementation of this rule,” Judge Bennett wrote, saying the rule change violates the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires the intake of scientific data when considering a policy shift.
“There is almost no professional support for its implementation,” the judge added.
But Bennett did side with the Trump administration in some of its arguments that could be problematic for abortion rights supporters going forward. Among those issues is the failure of Baltimore’s sex-based, equal protection claim under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.
“The distinction the regulations make based on sex is the result of the simple fact that only women can get pregnant,” he wrote. “Defendants need only provide a rational basis for the rule, which is satisfied by HHS’s determination that prenatal care is medically necessary for a pregnant woman and unborn child, a consideration that does not apply to non-pregnant Title X patients, whether they are non-pregnant women or men.”
An HHS spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation, but an appeal is expected.
Similar suits against the abortion gag rule in California and Washington state are both gearing up for oral arguments in the coming weeks.
The National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, an international coalition of abortion providers, is working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington to fight the rule in federal court there. They have a hearing scheduled for next week.
In a statement Friday praising Judge Bennett’s decision, NFPRHA President and CEO Clare Coleman said the policy is impacting clinics and access to health care for low-income women nationwide.
“Title X was created to support patient access to high-quality, confidential family planning care and information,” she said. “But the Trump administration’s actions have left millions of patients across the country without access to the Title X-funded health care they need.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to take up a controversial Louisiana abortion law later this session. With a conservative majority in control of the court, there’s heightened awareness of abortion laws and policy nationwide.
In the high court challenge, abortion providers in the Pelican State claim a law requiring abortion doctors to have admissions credentials at a nearby hospital would limit access to the procedure. Similar laws aiming to skirt Roe v. Wade by targeting abortion providers have passed in dozens of states around the country and have been met with mixed legal success.
Oral arguments in the Louisiana case are set for March 4.
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