Capitol Alert

California clinics stand to lose federal funds after court lets Trump abortion rule take effect

‘This rule gags our doctors.’ Becerra on lawsuit against Trump rules restricting abortion access

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announces a lawsuit Monday, March 4, 2019 against new Trump administration rules for Title X of the Public Health Service Act that would block access to abortion and other family planning services.
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California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announces a lawsuit Monday, March 4, 2019 against new Trump administration rules for Title X of the Public Health Service Act that would block access to abortion and other family planning services.

The Trump administration notched a legal win over California Thursday when a court ruled that the federal government could begin denying federal funding to health clinics that provide abortion referrals.

The rule could affect hundreds of health clinics in California that use so-called Title X funds, which provide services ranging from cancer screenings to birth control.

The Trump administration imposed the rule in an effort to ensure federal funds aren’t used to promote abortion.

More than 20 states including California and various organizations sued, calling the policy a “gag rule” would harm patients. District court judges had granted preliminary injunctions temporarily blocking the rule from taking effect in California and across the country, but the Thursday ruling out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned those decisions.

A panel of judges called the rule a “reasonable interpretation” of federal law.

“We are pleased that the Ninth Circuit has cleared the way for this important executive branch action to take effect while our appeals are pending,” U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Kelly Laco said in a statement. “The Department of Justice’s position is supported by long-standing Supreme Court precedent and we are confident we will ultimately prevail on appeal.”

In 2017, California health centers received $20 million in Title X funding and served over 1 million patients – about a quarter of the total patient population served nationwide by the program, according to the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association.

Julie Rabinovitz, president and CEO of Essential Access Health, criticized the ruling Thursday. Her organization is the Title X grantee for California and administers the funds to clinics throughout the state. It also sued to block the rule.

“If allowed to stand, access to essential health services will be delayed for the millions of low-income patients who rely on Title X for care in California and across the nation,” Rabinovitz said in a statement. “We are exploring all options available to challenge the decision and will continue to do everything possible to block these harmful and unlawful regulations from taking effect.”

About two-thirds of the people who benefit from the program in California access those services through Planned Parenthood clinics.

Planned Parenthood will not stop providing abortion referrals and will use emergency funds to provide care to patients while continuing to challenge the rule in court, said Jennifer Wonnacott, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement that California would “continue our fight in court” against the rule, which he said prohibits “doctors and other medical providers from giving factual, unbiased information to patients.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom also blasted the Thursday decision.

“Now more than ever, in the face of escalating attacks on reproductive choice around the nation, women need and deserve full information about their rights and health,” he said in a statement. “The State of California will continue to stand with women across the country in the fight for equal access to health care.”

It’s a rare victory for the Trump administration in the Ninth Circuit, which has a reputation as the most liberal appeals court in the country. The court has struck down several of the White House’s most controversial policies, including the president’s travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries and the White House’s attempts to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities. Trump has complained in the past that “you cannot win — if you’re us — a case in the Ninth Circuit and I think it’s a disgrace.“

He’s also been pushing to fill vacancies on the Ninth Circuit with young, conservative judges. Two of his appointees to the lifetime positions in California were confirmed by the Senate this spring and a third, 39-year-old Daniel Bress, was just approved on a party-line vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, over objections from California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.

The Democratic senators will have another chance to negotiate with the White House to fill a slot on the court. Judge Carlos Bea, one of the three judges on the panel that decided the Title X case, announced earlier this month that he was retiring, creating another California vacancy on the Ninth Circuit.

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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