The Democratic party’s top female leaders, including several contenders for the presidential nomination, have rallied around Planned Parenthood amid the organization’s high-profile dispute with the Trump administration over abortion provision.
On Monday the nation’s largest reproductive healthcare institution withdrew from the federal family planning programme that provides health services to poor women. It did so rather than submit to the straightjacket imposed by the Trump administration in new rules that block clinics from referring patients for abortions.
Many of the top female candidates for the nomination waded into the row, decrying the new restrictions and warning they will harm low-income families.
The Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the first members of the Democratic pack to put forward an abortion plan, accused the Trump administration in a tweet of “deliberately obstructing low-income people’s access to basic healthcare services”.
The California senator Kamala Harris called the new regulations a “domestic gag rule” that would impact millions of people.
“This is a disgrace,” she said. “As president, I will undo this gag rule on my first day in office.”
Similar harsh words for the rule change, made in support of Planned Parenthood, were issued by other candidates including the US senators Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand, and by Joe Biden, the current frontrunner who came under fire earlier this summer for past backing of a ban on federal funding of abortions.
The outpouring of support for Planned Parenthood indicates that abortion will probably be be a major faultline in next year’s election. About 4 million women are served nationwide under the federal family planning programme, known as Title X, which distributes $260m in grants to clinics.
Planned Parenthood has taken in about $60m a year under the program of which it has been a member since Title X was founded almost 50 years ago. The organization uses the subsidy to help up to 1.5 million low-income women with services such as birth control.
Under the rule change, any group that is in receipt of Title X funding will have to separate any facilities performing abortions from clinics offering other healthcare services, with no referral between the two.
A federal appeals court in San Francisco is weighing a lawsuit to overturn the rules, but so far the court has allowed the administration to go ahead with enforcement. Oral arguments are scheduled the week of 23 September. Several states and the American Medical Association have joined the suit as plaintiffs. Activists are also pressing Congress to overturn the rule.
Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood’s acting president and CEO, said the organisation’s nationwide network of health centers would remain open and strive to make up for the loss of federal money. But she predicted that many low-income women who rely on Planned Parenthood services would “delay or go without” care.
“We will not be bullied into withholding abortion information from our patients,” said McGill Johnson. “Our patients deserve to make their own healthcare decisions, not to be forced to have Donald Trump or Mike Pence make those decisions for them.”
Responding with its own statement, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said Planned Parenthood affiliates knew months ago about the new restrictions and suggested the group could have chosen at that point to exit the program.
Planned Parenthood was not the only organisation dropping out. Maine Family Planning, which is unaffiliated with Planned Parenthood, also released a letter of withdrawal on Monday. The National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, an umbrella group for family planning clinics, is suing to overturn the regulations.
Monday was the deadline set by the government for programme participants to submit statements that they intended to comply with the new rules, along with a plan. Enforcement will start 18 September.
Along with the ban on abortion referrals by clinics, the rule’s requirements include financial separation from facilities that provide abortion, designating abortion counseling as optional instead of standard practice and limiting which staff members can discuss abortion with patients. Clinics would have until next March to separate their office space and examination rooms from the physical facilities of providers that offer abortions.
The family planning rule is part of a series of efforts to remake government policy on reproductive health to please conservatives who are a key part of Trump’s political base. Religious conservatives see the programme as providing an indirect subsidy to Planned Parenthood, which runs family planning clinics and is also a major abortion provider.
Planned Parenthood’s withdrawal from Title X was greeted as a major victory by anti-abortionists. Catherine Glenn Foster, head of the group Americans United for Life, heralded the news as “a great day for women’s health in America”.
She told the anti-abortion website Life News: “Planned Parenthood is America’s deadliest nonprofit, and the news that they’re refusing to accept taxpayer funds to target vulnerable women is a good thing for women’s health.