Abortion wars flare for midterm election campaign
Trump expected to cut Planned Parenthood funding through regs
The Trump administration may take action to cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood as a result of pressure from congressional Republicans and anti-abortion lobbyists.
Opponents of abortion have launched an all-out campaign urging the administration to bring back Reagan-era abortion restrictions on federal family planning dollars that would target Planned Parenthood.
The regulations would ban organizations that receive family planning dollars under the Title X Family Planning Program, which funds organizations providing services like birth control to low-income women and men, from promoting abortion or referring patients for abortions.
Former President Reagan first issued the regulations, which Democrats describe as a "domestic gag rule," in 1988. They also require a physical and financial separation of Title X funding recipients from abortion providers.
Republicans see the action as a way to motivate the GOP base ahead of the midterm elections, where the party's majorities in the House and Senate are in play.
"The life issue is a huge motivator for the right. Getting a win on the pro-life side, even if it's regulatory rather than legislative, would be huge, and encourage people to come out and vote for the members who pushed for action on this," said Kelly Marcum, a legislative assistant for the conservative Family Research Council, which has been pushing for the changes.
Due to a lengthy legal battle, the regulations were never fully implemented but were upheld by the Supreme Court after Reagan left office.
But with a Republican president who has promised to defund Planned Parenthood, now is the perfect time to restore the regulations, abortion opponents say.
Their hope is that the restrictions will dissuade Planned Parenthood clinics from participating in Title X. Some clinics could also become ineligible if their family planning services are offered in the same location as abortion services.
"It's a way to wiggle away at Planned Parenthood federal funding, and a way to reinforce the idea that abortion is not family planning," Marcum said.
While federal law prohibits the use of federal funding for abortions in most cases, abortion opponents and Republicans have long argued money that goes to Planned Parenthood still indirectly supports the procedure.
Anti-abortion advocates have been frustrated over the GOP Congress's failure to defund Planned Parenthood. The GOP's slim majority in the Senate has been the obstacle.
Frustration swelled when Congress passed a spending bill earlier this year that excluded a measure defunding Planned Parenthood, a result negotiated between Democrats and Republicans to avoid a government shutdown.
This month, 85 groups opposed to abortion, including the Family Research Council, signed on to a letter urging Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to restore the Reagan-era regulations. Forty-three Senate Republicans and 153 House Republicans also sent letters to Azar pushing for the changes.
Lobbyists have said the administration seems receptive to their calls.
"They seem very open to it," said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs at March for Life. "It was part of the discussions during the transition, and I think it really is just a matter of timing."
Trump has already taken a number of actions pushed by anti-abortion advocates.
Trump has reinstated the so-called Mexico City policy, which bans the use of taxpayer dollars for foreign nongovernmental organizations that provide or promote abortions; rescinded Obama-era guidance that sought to protect Planned Parenthood from state-led defunding efforts; and broadened exemptions for employers that have moral or religious objections to providing contraception to their employees.
Anti-abortion advocates also occupy top ranks at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
"We're very optimistic. The administration has said they're on our side with this, and we're excited. Hopefully Secretary Azar, who is very pro-life, will act on this soon," Marcum said.
HHS did not respond to a request for comment.
Scoring a win before the midterms is crucial, abortion opponents say, so Republicans can build on their majority in the Senate and fully defund Planned Parenthood next year.
"We're pleased with the promises President Trump has upheld, but we also need Congress to stay on top of this," said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, a grass-roots organization that mobilizes young people opposed to abortion.
The push from abortion opponents has enraged congressional Democrats, who say the changes would restrict access to reproductive health care.
"We strongly oppose efforts to undermine the integrity of the Title X program and harm the millions of people who rely on it for care," 45 Senate Democrats wrote Tuesday in a letter to Azar.
"Federal health policy should be evidence-based and produced with the best interests of patients in mind."