Rule protects Planned Parenthood in Obama's last days

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Pro-life advocates hope the Obama administration's latest beneficial act for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers will have a brief existence.

Barely five weeks before President Obama leaves office, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued Dec. 14 a final rule that would effectively block states from prohibiting Title X funds for abortion providers. The federal government provides funds for family planning and preventive health services to states through the Title X program.

The HHS action appears to benefit the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) most. In recent years, at least 12 states have cut money for Planned Parenthood, some in the wake of different scandals uncovered regarding the country's No. 1 abortion provider. Courts have blocked those actions in some cases, thereby enabling the organization to continue to receive government funds.

The HHS rule, however, faces the challenge of surviving after President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated Jan. 20. During the election campaign, Trump promised pro-life leaders he would defund Planned Parenthood. Pro-life leaders are optimistic that pledge means the new rule -- which will take effect Jan. 18 -- would not long survive the new administration.

Southern Baptist ethics leader Russell Moore is praying to that end.

"My prayer is that this rule is reversed quickly, and that Planned Parenthood will finally be held accountable by both left and right, not protected by political allies at taxpayers' expense," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in written comments for Baptist Press.

The Susan B. Anthony List believes "this last gift of President Obama to the abortion lobby will be short-lived," said Mallory Quigley, communications director for the organization.

A congressional pro-life leader -- Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. -- said the Obama administration "will not have the last word."

"We should not be surprised that his administration would lash out with this eleventh hour power grab on the way out the door, but I am certain this rule will not stand for long," she said in a written statement. "Come next year, our pro-life majorities in Congress will be positioned to work with [Trump and Rep. Tom Price, a pro-lifer and nominee for HHS secretary] to not only roll back this latest overreach but also to enact new legal protections for these most vulnerable members of our society."

ERLC's Moore told BP, "Planned Parenthood exploits women, families, and communities in a profit-driven industry of death. That this organization receives any taxpayer support is a moral and political scandal, and those states that acted to defund it should be lauded, not bullied."

Planned Parenthood affiliates performed 323,999 abortions during 2013-14, the most recent year for which statistics are available. PPFA and its affiliates received $553.7 million in government grants and reimbursements, according to its latest annual financial report (2014-15).

In addition to action the Trump administration could take, Congress also could act to restrict federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

House of Representatives Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and 21 committee chairmen wrote the heads of the executive branch departments in mid-November to caution them about finalizing regulations in the Obama administration's final days. The Republican leaders warned they would work to review and possibly rescind such rules under the Congressional Review Act if the executive branch heads ignored the caution.

Congress also could largely defund Planned Parenthood through a reconciliation bill, which enables the Senate to approve a budget-related measure with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster. Under the reconciliation process, Congress could eliminate about 90 percent of Planned Parenthood's federal funding.

Both the Senate and House passed such a reconciliation proposal nearly a year ago, but Obama vetoed the bill in January.

The House and Senate "could put a bill defunding abortion businesses on President Trump's desk early in the new year," Quigley told Baptist Press in written comments.

"Americans simply do not want their hard-earned taxpayer dollars going to a profit-driven, abortion-centered business that claims the lives of more than [323,000] children a year," she said. "What's more, women need more than what Planned Parenthood can provide and will be better served at the community and rural health clinics" that vastly outnumber Planned Parenthood clinics.

PPFA President Cecile Richards applauded the HHS rule, saying Obama "has cemented his legacy as a champion for women's health."

"We will not back down, and we will continue to fight for our patients' access to care," she said in a written release. "Every person deserves the right to control their own bodies, their own health, and their own well-being without politicians getting in the way."

The latest of Planned Parenthood's scandals involves the online release last year of secretly recorded videos that showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing the alleged sale of organs from aborted children.

The new HHS rule does not explicitly block states from providing Title X funds to abortion providers. Instead, it bars states from basing the selection of a Title X recipient organization on anything other than "its ability to provide Title X services." As a result, states would be unable to block funds from going to organizations simply because they provide abortions.

According to federal law, Title X funds cannot be used for the performance of abortions, but pro-life advocates point out that grants to Planned Parenthood and other providers free up other funds for use in performing abortions.

HHS proposed the rule in September and provided a comment period. About 91 percent of the more than 145,000 comments favored the proposed rule, according to HHS. The vast majority of comments on both sides were duplicates, the department reported.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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