WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration has told federally funded family planning clinics it is considering a delay in enforcing a controversial rule that bars them from referring women for abortions. That comes after clinics had vowed defiance.
Two people attending meetings this week between the Department of Health and Human Services and clinic representatives told The Associated Press that officials said the clinics should be given more time to comply with the rule's new requirements. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly before any decision has been announced.
HHS said Friday that its policy has not changed.
On Monday, agency officials announced that the government would immediately begin enforcing the rule, catching the clinics off-guard and prompting an outcry. Planned Parenthood said its 400 clinics would defy the requirement. Some states, including Illinois and Maryland, backed the clinics. The family planning program serves about 4 million women a year, and many low-income women get basic health care from the clinics.
The administration's abortion restrictions, cheered by social and religious conservatives, are being challenged in court by groups representing the clinics, several states, and the American Medical Association. The litigation is still in its early stages. An enforcement pause may allow for a clearer indication of where the court cases are headed.
The people who spoke to AP said that HHS Office of Population Affairs Director Diane Foley told representatives of the clinics the administration is considering rewinding the clock on enforcement. Instead of requiring immediate compliance, the administration would issue a new timetable and start the process at that point.
Some requirements would be effective in 60 days, others in 120 days, and others would take effect next year.
The clinics had complained to HHS that the agency gave them no guidance on how to comply with the new restrictions, while expecting them to do so immediately.
The rule bars the family planning clinics from referring women for abortions. Abortion could still be discussed with patients, but only physicians or clinicians with advanced training could have those conversations. All pregnant patients would have to be referred for prenatal care, whether or not they request it. Minors would be encouraged to involve their parents in family planning decisions.
Under the rule, facilities that provide family planning services as well as abortions would have to strictly separate finances and physical space.
Known as Title X, the family-planning program funds a network of clinics, many operated by Planned Parenthood affiliates. The clinics also provide basic health services, including screening for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases. The program distributes about $260 million a year in grants to clinics, and those funds cannot be used to pay for abortions.
The family planning rule is part of a series of Trump administration efforts to remake government policy on reproductive health to please conservatives who are a key part of its political base.
Other regulations tangled up in court would allow employers to opt out of offering free birth control to women workers on the basis of religious or moral objections, and grant health care professionals wider leeway to opt out of procedures that offend their religious or moral scruples.
Abortion is a legal medical procedure, but federal laws prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman.
Planned Parenthood is also the nation's leading abortion provider, and abortion opponents see the family-planning money as a subsidy, even if federal funds cannot be used to pay for abortions.
Planned Parenthood is in the midst of a leadership upheaval, after its board abruptly ousted the organization's president this week. Leana Wen, a physician, had sought to reposition Planned Parenthood as a health care provider. In her resignation letter, she said the organization's board has determined the top priority should be to "double down on abortion rights advocacy."