A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a challenge to the Trump administration’s so-called “gag rule” that allegedly limits what federally funded health care providers can tell patients about accessing abortion services.
Maine Family Planning, the state’s only direct recipient of the federal Title X funds, in March 2019 sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as did similar organizations around the country, in U.S. District Court in Bangor. Family planning providers claimed the rule violated the free speech clause of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
U.S. District Judge Lance Walker disagreed and found that the “rule authorizes nondirective counseling, including abortion counseling; it only prohibits an abortion referral.”
It was the second time Walker, a Trump appointee, allowed the rule to remain in place. Last July, the judge refused to issue an injunction against the rule being followed in Maine.
Emily Nestler, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, who represents Maine Family Planning in the lawsuit, said Tuesday that Walker’s decision might be appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as “possible legal avenues to keep fighting this unlawful policy” are considered.
“We are disappointed that the judge did not recognize the very real harms this rule creates, not to mention the federal government’s utter disregard for how its actions will injure millions of people,” she said. “This rule has dismantled the Title X program — a program that has been critical in helping low-income Mainers access contraception and other reproductive health care.”
Appeals are pending in court throughout the country as the issue makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In February, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the rule in a 7-4 ruling, according to Reuters. The seven judges in the majority were appointed by Republican presidents, including two by Donald Trump. The dissenters were appointed by Democratic presidents.
Federal law prohibits federal funds from being used to perform abortions. Title X funds pay for family planning and other preventive health care services for low-income and uninsured people.
The Trump administration rule prevents doctors and nurses at facilities that receive federal funding from discussing abortion with pregnant patients or referring them to abortion providers even if they ask questions about abortion services, according to the complaint.
The plan also would require that abortion services be separated physically from other reproductive health care services — a provision referred to as the “separation” rule.
When the lawsuit was filed, Maine Family Planning President and CEO George Hill said that would force the nearly 20 Title X facilities around the state to “eliminate” on-site abortion services, leaving Maine with just three publicly accessible abortion providers.
In March 2019, Maine Family Planning’s annual operating budget was between $7.5 million and $8 million. It received a little more than $2 million in Title X money each year, which was disbursed to its 18 owner-operated health care centers across the state. Lesser amounts were earmarked for partner groups, such as Planned Parenthood.
Title X recipients that violated the rule could lose their federal funds. Maine Family Planning last year said it would operate without Title X funds by seeking more donations and using its reserve funds.