Critics call new Trump abortion rule a politically-motivated attack on women

Both supporters and critics of the proposal said Friday that midterm election math may have come into play.
by Jonathan Allen /  / Updated 

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President Donald Trump's proposed new abortion rule is a politically motivated maneuver that would limit access to a much wider range of health services for women — particularly poor women — abortion-rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers said Friday.

"This is a far-reaching attack, an attempt to take away women’s basic rights," said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which provides birth control, cancer screenings and other services to patients, as well as abortions.

The rule "is intended to prevent women from getting the basic health care information they need at Planned Parenthood," she said, telling NBC News later that the organization "will do everything we can, and we are not ruling out anything."

And Washington’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, said his state is “exploring our legal options” through the attorney general’s office.

The exact language of the proposed rule, which has been submitted to the Office of Management and Budget by the Health and Human Services Department, has not yet been released publicly by the White House or its agencies.

But a Trump administration official said that it would require programs that receive "Title X" family-planning funds to maintain physical and financial separation between taxpayer-backed operations and any related facilities that perform abortions, support the procedures or receive abortion referrals. Planned Parenthood received $286.5 million from the Title X competitive-grant program in fiscal 2017.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said late Friday in a statement that the proposal "fulfills" Trump's "promise to continue to improve women’s health and ensure that federal funds are not used to fund the abortion industry in violation of the law."

The so-called Hyde Act bars Title X funds from being used directly for abortion, but Planned Parenthood and other health care providers sometimes use the same facilities and personnel for both abortions and other health care services.

While the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision established a constitutional right to abortion, the justices also ruled in a 1990 case that ambiguity surrounding a section of the Title X law providing that funds "be used in programs where abortion is a method of family planning," the Health and Human Services Department could issue regulations curtailing the use of federal funds for abortion counseling.

However, there has not been a successful challenge to existing regulations. That is, the law is murky enough that each new administration has had the power to shift the rules back and forth.

Both proponents and critics of the administration's plan say that it is designed to force Planned Parenthood and similar organizations to choose between receiving federal family-planning money and providing abortions and related services.

And they also agree there's a powerful political element to the proposal: Trump, they say, wants to motivate base Republican voters in advance of this year's midterm elections.

For Republicans, like Susan B. Anthony List chief Marjorie Dannenfelser, that's a good thing. She praised the president for the substance of the policy and for "a major victory which will energize the grass roots."

Catherine Glenn Foster, president of Americans United for Life, hailed the plan as a return to old rules that drew a brighter line between family-planning funding and abortion services. "Americans United for Life applauds Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and the Trump Administration for reinstating Reagan-era family planning funding regulations that direct taxpayer funds to Title X locations that do not perform or refer for abortions," Foster said.

But Democrats Friday called it a cynical move with real-world consequences for women.

Trump "is willing to endanger women's lives as a political tool in the midterms, further proving that the president only cares about one thing: Donald Trump," said Democratic activist Nomiki Konst.

Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said there would be a tradeoff in the electoral strategy.

"My gut is that the Democratic base is at 99% intensity already. The GOP base is not," he said in an email exchange with NBC News. "The R’s need to motivate their constituency and this probably does that. Downside is swing college-educated women could go south, and they are a critical bloc in suburbia."

Outside of the political battleground, the effect would be to reduce health care access for millions of women, critics said. Planned Parenthood operates 13 percent of the programs that receive Title X funding but serves 41 percent of patients who benefit from them, according to the organization.

"This is just another strategy to take out the number-one provider of health care to low-income women in the United States," said Sophia Yen, CEO of Pandia Health, which provides online birth-control services and does not receive Title X funding. "This will result in more women dying because they don’t have access to the health care they need."

That would result from clinics that provide pre- and post-natal care shutting down because doctors who perform abortions will no longer be able to practice a full range of health care, she said. "If men could get pregnant, this would never happen," she added.

There's particular consternation among abortion-rights supporters over what they say is a gag rule embedded in the proposed regulation. Because the rule would deny Title X funds to programs if they don't effectively separate abortion referrals from other family-planning activities, critics say health care providers would be prevented from discussing options with patients.

But an administration official said the rule would allow Title X recipients to counsel patients on abortion so long as they didn't make referrals, while also dropping current language requiring them to advise patients on abortion options.

Laguens argued that Trump is inserting himself into the doctor-patient relationship in ways that would ultimately hurt women.

"A president who doesn’t know the difference between HIV and HPV should not be interfering," she said.

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