HHS Commits to Abortion Gag Rule as White House Signals Delay

WASHINGTON (CN) – At federal agency and court levels, the resources America makes available to couples dealing with unwanted pregnancies suffered twin setbacks heading into the weekend.

An anti-abortion advocate attempts to solicit a motorist entering the parking lot of the Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, the state’s last operating abortion clinic in St. Louis, on June 21, 2019. (Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP File)

The Department of Health and Human Services leveled its blow Friday morning, holding firm on its widely criticized new rule that bars family-planning clinics from referring patients for abortions.

Though the Trump administration is reportedly considering a delay, following meetings that occurred this week with clinic officials, HHS said Friday its position has not changed. Earlier this week, the agency said it would begin enforcing the abortion gag rule immediately.

Clinic officials and states across the country are challenging the rule in courts across the country, and Planned Parenthood has said its 400 plan to defy the rule.

The developments at HHS come a day after U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper tossed a lawsuit against the agency over its 2017 decision to end grant funding under the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program.

TPPP was first put in place in 2010, making it possible for public agencies and nonprofit groups working to stamp out teen pregnancy to obtain federal funding. In canceling the program without explanation, HHS shifted its resources toward abstinence-focused programs.

Numerous courts have already ruled the TPPP termination unlawful, but Judge Cooper ruled late Thursday that mootness forecloses the suit at hand by Promundo-US, a nonprofit that has been using its TPPP grant to study young men of color.

The problem for Promundo is that it waited nearly a year after receiving the defunding notice to file suit. By that time, however, HHS had already distributed the funds from the 2018 quarter.

“A court order requiring HHS to fund Promundo’s fourth budget period ‘from any source of funds other than the [2018 TPPP] appropriation would constitute money damages rather than specific relief,’” the ruling states. “And because the 2018 TPPP appropriation is no longer available for obligation, the court will dismiss as moot Promundo’s claims based on its fourth budget period.”

As for the fifth budget period, Cooper said this issue is not ripe because HHS has not yet determined what to do about Promundo’s funding.

Cooper noted that it would be “unfortunate to say the least” if HHS denied funding for the fifth quarter because of what has already been ruled to be an unlawful termination.

Still that decision is one that belongs to the agency, according to the ruling.

“That said, government counsel has represented that HHS has set aside adequate funds for the fifth year of Promundo’s grant (thus avoiding any mootness concerns), and Promundo still has the opportunity to convince the agency to release these funds,” Cooper wrote. “Should that effort fail, Promundo can renew the litigation.  Without prejudging any further litigation, the court would only note that it is difficult to imagine circumstances under which it would uphold a denial of fifth-year funding based on project modifications caused by HHS’s unlawful termination of Promundo’s grant.”

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