A federal judge in Yakima on Thursday blocked new Trump administration rules that could cut off federal funding for health-care providers who refer patients for an abortion.
The planned changes to the Title X family planning program, which was created in 1970 and serves 4 million patients nationwide each year, could affect the health care of tens of thousands of Washington women. The new rules were due to take effect May 3.
U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian in Yakima granted the preliminary injunction in cases brought by the state and abortion-rights groups, the Washington attorney general’s office said.
As the state’s attorneys made their arguments in Yakima, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., visited a Planned Parenthood health center in Seattle’s Central District to meet with leaders of the organization and hear from women who use services funded through Title X.
“This is about women making the right decisions for themselves, for their health care, so they can be capable of doing what they need to do, whether that is going to school, having a family later, getting their house in order if that is what they need to do,” Murray told the women.
Thursday’s ruling came two days after a federal judge in Oregon, hearing a separate challenge by 20 states, said he intended to at least partially block the rules. At the hearing, U.S. District Judge Michael McShane said, “At the heart of these rules is an arrogant assumption that the government is better suited to direct women’s health care than their providers.”
The rule change was issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in February. Ferguson sued the Trump administration that same month.
The lawsuits said the administration’s plan was a transparent attack on Planned Parenthood and would curb access to care such as contraception and breast- and cervical-cancer screening for millions of low-income people.
“All over the country, there are Title X providers looking at their patient schedules and wondering what they were going to do. Now we know that everyone can continue to do their care as they have been doing for the past 50 years,” said Clare Coleman, president of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association. Arguments in that organization’s separate lawsuit were also heard in Yakima on Thursday.
Judge Bastian made his ruling from the bench and said he would issue a written opinion early next week, Coleman said.
In addition to banning abortion referrals by taxpayer-funded clinics, the changes would prevent clinics and programs that use federal money from sharing facilities with abortion providers — which critics said would force many to find new locations, undergo expensive remodels or shut down.
About 91,000 women in Washington state use health care funded through the Title X family planning program. A few of them spoke at the Planned Parenthood clinic in the Central District on Thursday.
Cindy Figueroa, who is from Yakima, said she began going to Planned Parenthood when she was a student at Central Washington University. Because she went in for regular checkups, the clinic was able to diagnose her cancer while the disease was in its early stages. “Planned Parenthood saved my life,” Figueroa said. “Literally.”
For University of Washington student BreAnna Girdy, the Planned Parenthood location in the University District means she doesn’t have to drive to Mount Vernon, her hometown, to see a doctor. Girdy said she has insurance through Medicaid — called Apple Health in this state — which limits the clinics she can use.
“There really is nowhere for me to go,” she said. “Planned Parenthood is constantly giving me access to not only reproductive health but access to other health services as well.”
Murray said she would take the women’s stories back to Washington, D.C., and share them with lawmakers who are trying to curtail what clinics can offer women seeking health care.
Jennifer Allen, CEO of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii — an independent organization that lobbies for Planned Parenthood — sat next to Murray and took in the stories told by Girdy, Figueroa and Amberly Riegler. Allen spoke about the impact the reduced funding would have for women, not only in Washington state but across the country.
“The restrictions that the Trump administration is trying to put on that program with this gag rule are outrageous,” she said. “They are an outrageous attack on patients and on providers who are being told that they should withhold information from their patients. That is crazy. We have to fight back against it.”
Abortion is a legal medical procedure, but federal laws prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman. Religious conservatives and abortion opponents have long complained that Title X has been used to indirectly subsidize abortion providers.
Services funded by Title X are mostly used by low-income patients. Planned Parenthood works with about 40% of those patients nationwide. The grant program costs taxpayers about $260 million a year.
In 2017, 14,000 patients across Washington state received federally funded services at 85 clinics, many of them operated by Planned Parenthood.
The U.S. abortion rate has dropped significantly, from about 29 per 1,000 women of reproductive age in 1980 to about 15 per 1,000 in 2014. Although abortion remains politically divisive, polls show most Americans do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s lawsuit said Trump’s policy violates the Affordable Care Act, which protects providers and patients from government interference in the health-care relationship, and also violates a federal law that requires doctors to provide information about abortion and prenatal care to patients in an unbiased manner.
It also violates the Administrative Procedures Act by contradicting Title X regulations without sufficient justification, and it violates doctors’ right to free speech and women’s right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade, the lawsuit alleged.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.