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Trump's new abortion rule is an effort to silence women and their doctors while no one is looking

The administration's changes to Title X are a backdoor way to defund Planned Parenthood, and the effects on women will be far-reaching.
Image: Pro-choice activists
Pro-choice activists hold signs as marchers in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 2014.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

For generations, two words in the Public Health Service Act — Title X — have been the key to low income women’s access to crucial family-planning resources. But the White House’s recent rewrite of Title X literally requires clinics’ dead silence about some aspects of women’s reproductive rights.

The Trump administration's draft final rule for the Title X Family Planning Program, called the “Gag Rule,” forces any medical provider receiving federal assistance to refuse to “perform, promote, refer for, or support abortion as a method of family planning.”

In other words, if a doctor simply mentions that abortion exists to a low-income patient — just informing them that abortion is a safe, legal option for women would be considered tantamount to promoting abortion — the entire facility would lose access to federal funds to help those patients pay for birth control.

Notably, it’s already illegal to use Title X funds on actual abortions; the changes to the law are entirely about what medical personnel can and cannot say. Thus, the policy, if it survives the inevitable court challenges, would deny poor women access to basic information about their reproductive health choices at some of the few federally funded facilities available to them, effectively criminalizing the mere act of giving disadvantaged people the soundest medical advice.

Trump’s rebranding of the Gag Rule marks a frontal assault on human rights — not just for the four million patients that Title X providers serve annually, but also the community-based health care providers that struggle to narrow abysmal gaps in healthcare services. (The new domestic gag rule is a reflection of a similar anti-abortion rule for international aid funding instituted by every Republican administration since Ronald Reagan.)

By muddling medicine and religious orthodoxy, moreover, the Gag Rule also threaten to erode the ethical integrity of the health care workforce, imposing the impossible choice on clinicians to either obey the law that funds their programs, or to uphold ethical responsibilities to their patients.

The Gag Rule thus not only weakens health care workers’ labor rights but also their free-speech rights, by criminalizing the act of providing advice that is based on the best science and highest social responsibility, The sweeping stricture bars the use of Title X funds even for non-abortion related services even when both functions of the organization — like cervical cancer screening and birth control counseling — operate with separate finances at the institution.

The new rules are designed to advance a key goal of anti-abortion groups: Defunding Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading reproductive healthcare network and often the target of massive right-wing smear campaigns. Like many other Title X clinics, Planned Parenthood's primary function is not terminating pregnancies but delivering critical health care (like cancer screenings and prenatal and gynecological care) to deprived populations; they serve about 41 percent of all Title X patients and receive about $60 million annually for the program. funds that would, under the new rule, be conditioned on forcing the censorship of doctors and putting patients at risk.

The silence imposed by Trump’s Gag Rule, of course, would not constrain affluent women the same way it would the poor; the privileged could always afford private abortion services without having to navigate byzantine federal restrictions.

Meanwhile, the socioeconomic barriers that low-income women face are the same obstacles that tether them to Title X programs for essential care. About two-thirds of patients live in poverty; the vast majority lack private insurance. And the social divides in reproductive access shadow the color-line: About half of Title X patients are black and Latinx, so the Gag Rule adds another layer of injustice to the hierarchy of racial power, cutting off poor women of color from the most basic control over their own bodies.

Title X is not just about health care, though; it is about women’s ability to live free, empowered lives.

Although the Trump administration has suggested that the Gag Rule would not significantly impact the economy, the provision of family planning through Title X, whether it’s prescribing birth control pills or giving advice on getting an abortion, has helped millions of women avoid unwanted pregnancy and thus the setbacks from pregnancy on educational and job opportunities. Reproductive rights also shapes women’s personal resilience when it comes to breaking away from an abusive relationship, for example, or escaping a community where a premarital pregnancy imposes a lifetime badge of stigma and shame.

And, of course, the planned rules would be counterproductive even by “pro-life” standards, since Title X is associated with the prevention of about one million unintended pregnancies per year, many of which might have ended in abortion, along with the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, which can render women infertile.

Title X was designed to safeguard every woman’s right to control her reproductive future, and now Trump specifically trying to dismantle the sacrosanct ethical relationship between patient and physician in order to take that control from her.

The resurrected Gag Rule threatens to punish women for doing exactly what the law is designed to facilitate: help women live full, healthy lives, regardless of how poor they are. As much as Title X was inadequate to meet th full needs of poor women, it offered an essential bridge to medical providers committed to serving them equitably, without subjecting them to the indignity of ideological interference or judgment about their sexual history

Trump’s revision of Title X hands an ideological blank check to a political faction that is categorically hostile to women’s rights and public health. The ideological agenda is displayed most baldly in the rule’s “conscience clause,” which allows healthcare providers to refuse to provide information on abortion services, even if it means withholding the best medical advice.

The Gag Rule does more than stifle a doctor’s medical advice; it silences them and their patients by erasing their freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom to live without discrimination. That silence around abortion is inherited from an era when women had no voice in determining their reproductive future and, under Trump, the silence seems poised to endure for yet another generation.