BOSTON — A federal judge has blocked new rules that would have withheld funding from health centers that provide or refer patients to abortion services.
The ruling late last week by U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Bastian in Washington granted a preliminary injunction in cases brought by the state and abortion rights groups.
The federal rules, which were set to go into effect Friday, May 3, would have prohibited federal dollars for providers that perform or promote abortion as a method of family planning.
Abortion providers would have to perform them in facilities separated from those offering other Title X services, such as gynecological care, cancer screening and testing for sexually transmitted infections. They would also be barred from suggesting abortion as a method of family planning, which abortion rights advocates have called a “gag order” on physicians.
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the ruling “ensures that clinics across the nation can remain open and continue to provide quality, unbiased healthcare to women.”
Funding the gap
In Massachusetts, about 100 health care providers — including five run by the Planned Parenthood League — received about $4.3 million through the Title X program in fiscal 2018, according to federal data. The money helped provide services to an estimated 75,000 people, according to health providers.
Abortion rights groups praised the judge’s ruling, but said the fight is far from over.
“This ruling to block the Trump-Pence administration’s Title X gag rule nationwide will allow 4 million people to continue receiving life-saving breast and cervical cancer screenings, HIV testing, STI treatment, and affordable birth control,” Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said in a statement.
“However, this is still just a preliminary ruling,” she added. “This gag rule cannot stand.”
State leaders have already moved to plug an expected gap in funding for private health clinics that perform abortions in Massachusetts.
Last month, House and Senate lawmakers added $8 million in additional funding for the clinics onto a supplemental spending bill. Gov. Charlie Baker, a pro-choice Republican, signed it.
Massachusetts is one of 17 states where public money is used to fund abortions and other reproductive services, though it’s unclear how much the state spends on abortion procedures. Providers are reimbursed through the state-run Medicaid program.
Providers who are part of the Title X program give priority to low-income families, who receive care for free or on a sliding scale. Federal law already prohibits government funds from being used for abortion.
Targeting Planned Parenthood
Religious conservatives have long complained that Planned Parenthood affiliates receive Title X money while also providing abortions, which means the funds could be improperly mixed.
The Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, which opposes abortion, blasted the federal judge’s ruling and called it an “abuse of power.”
“This is an Obama-era judge who has decided to legislate for the entire nation,” C.J. Doyle, the group’s spokesman, said Friday. “The ruling is an abuse of office, a violation of the separation of powers, and a usurpation of the right of the elected executive branch to enforce the law.”
Defunding Planned Parenthood has been a goal of the anti-abortion movement for decades. Republican President Donald Trump pledged to do so during his 2016 campaign.
Nationally, Planned Parenthood — which operates 40 percent of the 4,000 Title X clinics in the country, serving more than 4 million people — stands to lose $60 million year in funding.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has said the Trump administration’s goal is protecting “the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.”
The Washington state lawsuit was one of several challenging the Trump administration’s proposed changes.
Another lawsuit by 22 state attorneys general, including Attorney General Maura Healey, as well as medical advocacy groups is also seeking to block the rule from going into effect.
The federal judge in Oregon overseeing that legal challenge said earlier this week from the bench that he planned to issue an injunction against the rule. His written ruling is expected soon.
“President Trump’s illegal attack on the reproductive rights of millions of low-income women in Massachusetts and across the country has been stopped by the courts twice this week,” said Chloe Gotsis, a Healey spokeswoman. “These injunctions mean that our Title X clinics will continue to provide women with the comprehensive family planning care they need.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com