Justices to Hear Challenge to Trump Abortion Gag Rule

The rule is currently in effect everywhere but Maryland, where a federal judge issued an injunction blocking its enforcement.

Anti-abortion protesters gather outside the Supreme Court in June 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to resolve a circuit split over a Trump administration rule denying federal funding to clinics that refer women for abortions.

Then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar finalized the rule at issue in 2019, prohibiting health care providers like Planned Parenthood and others from taking federal funding so long as they referred their patients to abortion services.

The Title X family planning program provides hundreds of millions of federal dollars for family planning centers and health care facilities across the U.S., mostly benefiting low-income families and women.

In addition to blocking the flow of Title X funds to health centers that refer women for abortions, the Trump-era rule requires government-funded clinics to refer women to prenatal care even if they plan to end their pregnancies.

The regulation, which was labeled an abortion “gag rule” by critics, also mandates that clinics maintain physical and financial separation from facilities that provide abortion services.

Prior to the 2019 restrictions, centers that provided abortion referrals could still receive federal funding as long as the money was used for other family planning purposes. 

Planned Parenthood, which previously served 41% of Title X patients – 1.6 million people – announced it was pulling out of the program , arguing the “unethical” rule would require it to withhold factual and pertinent information from patients.

In a case brought by Planned Parenthood and a coalition of states, the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit lifted three injunctions against the rule in a 7-4 split last year.

Writing for the en banc court’s majority, U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta, a George W. Bush appointee, said the rule is a “reasonable interpretation” of Section 1008 of Title X, which forbids using Title X funds “in programs where abortion is a method of family planning.”

But the full Fourth Circuit held seven months later that the rule cannot be enforced in the state of Maryland, after Baltimore’s city council and mayor sued to challenge the rule and a federal judge issued a statewide injunction against it.

U.S. Circuit Judge Julius Richardson, a Donald Trump appointee, was one of six Fourth Circuit judges to dissent against the September ruling. He had argued that health service providers have no “preexisting right” to decide how federal funding is distributed.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in three consolidated cases challenging the rule, which is currently in effect everywhere but Maryland.

Per their custom, the justices did not comment on their decision to take up the dispute.

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