PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A federal judge in Maine denied on Wednesday a reproductive rights group’s request to block new rules for family planning grants backed by the Trump administration.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced new rules this spring to prohibit family planning clinics funded by the federal Title X program — which serves about 4 million people a year — from making abortion referrals.
U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker wrote in a decision that the new rules could make obtaining an abortion “more convoluted,” but that the challenge is likely not as insurmountable as the New York City-based Center for Reproduction Rights contended.
Walker said Maine’s new law allowing certain non-doctors to perform abortions “undermines” reproductive rights advocates’ concerns about the Trump rules.
“(T)he patient remains free to pursue abortion counseling, referral, and/or services from another source, at her election,” he said.
Last month, a federal appeals court said that the new rules can take effect while the government appeals decisions that blocked them. More than 20 states and several civil rights and health organizations have challenged the rules in cases filed in Oregon, Washington and California.
The Center for Reproduction Rights had filed a separate emergency request to block the rules on behalf of Maine Family Planning, the state’s sole federally funded family planning provider. Maine Family Planning argues the new rules will jeopardize its 18 clinics and access to abortion itself. Physicians provide medication and aspiration abortions one day a week through Maine Family Planning’s Augusta headquarters.
Since 2014, doctors also facilitate medication abortions at Maine Family Planning’s seventeen other clinics through a telehealth program.
The center vows it will keep fighting what is often referred to as the gag rule.
“This is obviously only the beginning of a very long road in this case,” said attorney Emily Nestler. She said the group’s pursuing all of its options, including an appeal.
The Trump rules also require clinics to refer pregnant patients for prenatal services and maintain a “clear physical and financial” separation between abortion and other family-planning services.
The administration has said the regulations ensure family planning providers don’t have to choose between accepting federal funding and violating their consciences by providing abortion counseling and referral.
A request for comment on Walker’s ruling was sent Wednesday to the Justice Department.
Nestler said it’s unclear when exactly the Trump rules will go into effect.
“It’s very clear to me and my clients that the result of this court order and the rule will be devastating both in Maine and nationwide,” she said.
But Judge Walker said Wednesday that he’s “not persuaded” that the Maine group’s request justifies a nationwide injunction.
Maine Family Planning, which provides roughly 500 abortions annually largely near the state’s most-populated areas, has argued that it relies on referrals because its clinics are too small to subdivide and that using separate facilities under the Trump rules would be too expensive.
The organization estimates the Trump rules would close all but three of its clinics and lead to increased travel distances for patients.
Walker downplayed such concerns in his opinion.
Providers could still counsel patients about abortion without directing them to their clinics, wrote the judge.
Walker also called it “rational” for the Trump rules to require family planning clinics to perform abortions at separate facilities, given the existing prohibition against using federal funds on abortion.
The judge also said Maine’s move to end its physician-only abortion law alters its landscape of abortion services.
“Maine Family Planning may be able to reconstitute a well-distributed telehealth abortion network without building out or obtaining new physical space in all seventeen of its satellite locations, especially where it can now rely on advanced practice nurses to administer the program,” Walker said.