Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and other Maine family planning advocates expressed outrage Friday over a Trump administration proposal that would ban federally funded clinics from referring women for abortions.
Alison Bates, a nurse practitioner for Planned Parenthood in Portland, said her first responsibility is to her patients and to “provide accurate, non-judgmental and non-biased information.”
The proposed new rule, she said, amounts to a gag order for practitioners.
“It would allow politicians to insert themselves into exam rooms,” Bates said Friday during a press conference.
The proposal had not been officially announced by early Friday afternoon, but a senior White House official told the Associated Press that it will eliminate a requirement put into place during President Bill Clinton’s tenure that ensures women who visit family planning clinics are given counseling on all options, including abortion.
Nicole Clegg, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said the proposal could be catastrophic for organizations like hers who receive federal funding through Title X, the nation’s largest family planning funding program.
“A domestic gag rule would essentially dismantle the Title X program as we know it — jeopardizing affordable birth control and reproductive health care for 4 million people, including 22,000 Mainers,” Clegg said. “Everyone, regardless of their race, their income, or where they live, deserves the best medical care and information available. Under this rule, they won’t get it.”
Title X provides $260 million in annual funding for family planning, including $2 million to Maine. Those funds are managed by Maine Family Planning, which operates 18 direct service clinics and subcontracts with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and Greater Portland Health Community Center to provide services in southern Maine.
“The Trump administration’s ideological attack on Title X pulls the rug out from under tens of thousands of Mainers who depend on Maine Family Planning for expert care,” said George A. Hill, president and CEO of Maine Family Planning. “This is clear political pandering to right-wingers obsessed with undermining abortion rights and access in this country. But when these political points are won at the expense of people’s health care, we cannot stand for it.”
President Donald Trump, during his first year and a half in office, has made several attempts to restrict access to abortion but Clegg said this proposal is by far the most significant.
Federal funds already cannot be used to pay for abortion procedures by family clinics. Money for abortion procedures must come from other sources. But advocates say if clinics can’t even talk about abortion as a safe – and legal – option, and can’t even share space with abortion providers, which is possible, women will suffer.
The rule would potentially defund, at least partially, Planned Parenthood, something Trump and the Republican-led Congress have tried unsuccessfully to do.
The “gag rule” was first proposed during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It never went into effect as written, although the Supreme Court ruled that it was an appropriate use of executive power. The policy was rescinded under President Clinton.
The Trump administration also has reinstated what’s known as the global gag rule, which applies to any U.S.-based health organization offering services outside of the country and bans them from providing or discussing abortion.
Clegg said Friday that there would likely be legal challenges to the proposed rule, but she hoped that the outcry from the medical community, and pressure from lawmakers, might be enough to scuttle the plan.
“Now is not the time to walk progress backwards,” she said.
But Republicans have been trying, aggressively in some cases, to roll back abortion rights. Although the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade legalized the practices, some states have been successful in passing restrictions. In other states, health advocates are pushing back.
This week before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, justices heard oral arguments from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which has sued the Department of Health and Human Services for refusing to pay for abortions through the state’s Medicaid program. A decision on that suit could come in the next few months.
The new rule could help galvanize both Republicans and Democrats ahead of the November midterm elections.
A key voice could be Susan Collins, Maine’s senior U.S. Senator and a Republican. She has consistently supported Planned Parenthood and family planning services, often going against the majority in her party.
Collins’ spokeswoman, Annie Clark, said Friday that the senator will review any official proposal from the White House before offering comment.
“In keeping with the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, Senator Collins believes the difficult decision about whether to have an abortion should be made by the woman in consultation with her family and her doctor,” Clark said. “Senator Collins has been a strong proponent of funding for the Title X Family Planning Program. She has also consistently opposed “gag rules” that prevent health care providers from providing their patients with full and accurate medical information and referral services.”
Sen. Angus King’s office did not comment immediately, but King did sign a letter last week to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in support of the Title X program.
Patients already are concerned about what the administration’s move could mean.
Melissa Hue, a patient at Planned Parenthood and an immigrant from the Ivory Coast, said she sought health care from the organization and was amazed how empathetic staff was. She said she and others within the immigrant community don’t have a lot of places they can go where they aren’t judged or shamed.