Trump Focus on Abstinence Prompts Outrage on Grant Money

A one-month dosage of hormonal birth control pills. (Photo by RICH PEDRONCELLI, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Medical providers that rely on public funding to offer family-planning services fired off twin federal complaints Wednesday, calling out the Trump administration’s new focus on abstinence education as hopelessly unsound.

Represented by attorneys at WilmerHale as well as in-house counsel, Planned Parenthood brought one of the lawsuits, with the other coming from a group called National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association.

Planned Parenthood affiliates, state health departments and hospital-based clinics account for just a segment of the NFPRHA’s 850 members. Together they represent about 84 percent of all the health care providers in the United States that receive grants under the 45-year-old family-planning program known as Title X.

Dealing a blow to the scheme this past February, however, the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled new guidelines that will determine which health care providers are eligible for a share of the $286 million Title X dollars in the 2018 budget. The new guidelines do not mention contraception, and instead refer only to “natural family planning methods” and “fertility awareness.”

“These terms and phrases may seem generic, but they are in fact the buzzwords of abstinence-only-until-marriage approaches to sex education in schools, now sometimes called ‘sexual risk avoidance,’” the NFPRHA says in its complaint, where it is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ruth Harlow, an attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, accused the Trump administration of prioritizing ideology over health.

“This time, they’re undermining a decades-old public health program in order to spread their ideologically driven vision of how people should live their lives,” Harlow said in a statement. “They can’t ignore the rules as they make sweeping changes to a program started by Congress nearly 50 years ago to make critical health care accessible. Not on our watch.”

Both the NFPRHA and Planned Parenthood warn that tying federal grant money to abstinence will increase the number of unintended pregnancies and reduce access to contraception.

The lawsuits emphasize that nearly 90 percent of the patients served by the Title X program in 2016 were low-income.

Planned Parenthood also notes that abstinence isn’t the only new focus, pointing out that the new guidelines now cite consideration of whether providers cooperate with faith-based organizations and provide onsite primary care.

Gillian Dean, who is senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood, labeled the HHS directive as an overt attempt to control women’s bodies.

“The Trump-Pence administration is trying to tell women what kind of birth control to use – or in many cases not to use a method of birth control at all,” Dean said in a statement. “They are trying to push people toward abstinence or pressure women into marriage – instead of helping them get quality health care. They are trying to block people from getting care at Planned Parenthood health centers – with devastating consequences.”

Filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the complaints accuse HHS of violating the Administrative Procedure Act among other laws.

“Those unexplained and unjustified changes contravene the Title X program as Congress intended it, violate the government’s own existing regulations, and threaten devastating, irreparable harms to the very patients Title X was meant to help,” the Planned Parenthood lawsuit says.

According to the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association lawsuit, about 80 percent of Title X patients got their contraception through the program. They estimate such care prevented more than 800,000 unintended pregnancies in 2015.

HHS also identified “activities for adolescents that do not normalize sexual risk behaviors, but instead clearly communicate the research informed benefits of delaying sex or returning to a sexually risk-free status” as a key issue for grant applicants.

Representatives for Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.

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