Trump administration set to resurrect ban on abortion counseling at federally-funded clinics

Following pressure from pro-life Republicans in Congress ahead of the midterm elections, the Trump administration is planning to resurrect a Reagan-era rule banning federally-funded family planning clinics from discussing abortion with women.

The rule would also prohibit the clinics from sharing space with abortion providers, a senior White House official told the Associated Press Thursday.

That practice, known as "co-location," was specifically decried by more than 150 House members and more than 40 senators earlier this month in letters to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar.

HHS will be announcing its proposal Friday, officials said.

The policy has been derided as a "gag rule" by abortion rights supporters and medical groups, and it is likely to trigger lawsuits that could keep it from taking effect. However, it's guaranteed to galvanize activists on both sides of the abortion debate ahead of the congressional midterm elections.

The Reagan-era rule never went into effect as written, although the Supreme Court ruled that it was an appropriate use of executive power. The policy was rescinded under President Bill Clinton, and a new rule went into effect which allowed "nondirective" counseling to include a range of options for women.

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Abortion is a legal medical procedure. Doctors' groups and abortion rights supporters say a ban on counseling women trespasses on the doctor-patient relationship. They point out that federal family planning funds cannot be currently used to pay for abortion procedures.

"I cannot imagine a scenario in which public health groups would allow this effort to go unchallenged."

— National Family Planning VP Jessica Marcella

Abortion opponents say a taxpayer-funded family planning program should have no connection whatsoever to abortion.

"The notion that you would withhold information from a patient does not uphold or preserve their dignity," said Jessica Marcella of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, which represents family planning clinics. "I cannot imagine a scenario in which public health groups would allow this effort to go unchallenged."

She said requiring family planning clinics to be physically separate from facilities in which abortion is provided would disrupt services for women across the country.

But Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America said, "Abortion is not health care or birth control and many women want natural health care choices, rather than hormone-induced changes."

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Abortion opponents allege the federal family planning program in effect cross-subsidizes abortion services provided by Planned Parenthood, whose clinics are also major recipients of grants for family planning and basic preventive care. Hawkins' group is circulating a petition to urge lawmakers in Congress to support the Trump administration's proposal.

Known as Title X, the nation's family-planning program serves about 4 million women a year through clinics, at a cost to taxpayers of about $260 million.

Planned Parenthood clinics also qualify for Title X grants but they must keep the family-planning money separate from funds used to pay for abortions. The Republican-led Congress has unsuccessfully tried to deny federal funds to Planned Parenthood, and the Trump administration has vowed to religious and social conservatives that it would keep up the effort.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.