By Michelle Hackman 

WASHINGTON -- The Biden administration took initial steps to undo a Trump administration policy that stripped federal family-planning dollars from clinics that refer patients for abortions, a move that drove Planned Parenthood to withdraw from the program.

The Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday proposed a rule that, when finalized, would reverse the policy on the federal program, known as Title X. The program offers about $286 million each year to clinics that provide reproductive healthcare and other women's health screenings, such as Pap smears, to about four million uninsured Americans a year.

The Trump administration rule, enacted in 2019, called for clinics that received federal funding to physically separate their abortion services in a separate building from all other services, and not to discuss abortions as an option with patients.

The change was one of a series of steps the Trump administration took to cut funds for abortion providers, a top concern for religious conservatives, who were a key part of former President Donald Trump's base and who shaped many aspects of his healthcare policy.

Federal dollars have long been prohibited by law from directly funding abortions, though advocates who oppose the procedure say funding to providers like Planned Parenthood, even for other services, essentially subsidizes them and makes it easier for Planned Parenthood and other clinics to provide abortions.

Abortion-rights supporters criticized the Trump administration policy, calling it a "gag rule" because it prevented doctors and other healthcare professionals from presenting patients with all available family-planning options.

These critics said that by pushing Planned Parenthood clinics out of the federal network where uninsured women could receive family-planning services, the Trump administration also cut off access for women in many underserved communities where Planned Parenthood is the only provider offering birth control and other women's healthcare.

At the time of the change, Planned Parenthood clinics served about 40% of the program's overall patients and received about $60 million in annual funding.

"Women should be able to make informed decisions about their healthcare, including their reproductive healthcare decisions, without government interference," said Jamille Fields Allsbrook, director of women's health and rights at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.

Susan B. Anthony List, a national antiabortion group, criticized the plan to roll back the rule, saying the Trump administration's decision was consistent with the statutory language of Title X and supported by Americans who oppose using taxpayer dollars to fund abortion.

"Abortion is not 'family planning' and Biden-Harris Democrats pursue this extreme, unpopular agenda at their political peril," said SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser.

The Trump administration also worked to reshape the family-planning program to include faith-based clinics that discourage the use of contraception and advocate abstinence or "natural" birth-control methods. In 2019, for example, a Christian organization known as Obria that doesn't offer any forms of contraception for the first time received a $1.7 million grant from Title X.

Women's health advocates had hoped the Biden administration would move more quickly to undo the Trump administration's rules, since a formal rule change could take months or longer. But the slower approach could fortify the administration against lawsuits saying it violated federal policy-making rules, which brought down many quickly enacted Trump administration policies.


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 14, 2021 14:10 ET (18:10 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.