SEATTLE -- Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Monday he will sue to challenge President Donald Trump's policy setting up new obstacles for women seeking abortions, calling it "a transparent attack on Planned Parenthood" that would severely impair access to many types of medical care, especially for low-income women in rural areas.
It's the first of several legal challenges expected to be announced by Democratic-led states. A national organization representing publicly funded family planning providers said Monday it would file a separate lawsuit over the policy.
The new rules announced Friday by the Department of Health and Human Services would bar taxpayer-funded family planning clinics from making abortion referrals. They would also prohibit clinics that receive federal money from sharing office space with abortion providers — a rule that Ferguson said would force many to find new locations, undergo expensive remodels or shut down.
Clinics that receive money under Title X, the 1970 law designed to improve access to reproductive health care for communities around the nation, provide a wide array of services, including birth control and screening for diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases and cancer. Beyond interfering in a patient's relationship with her doctor, Ferguson said, the rules could leave vast areas without such care for low-income residents.
"Rural communities currently have a shortage of health care providers," Ferguson told reporters. "This rule will make the shortage even more acute."
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. Religious conservatives and abortion opponents have long complained that Title X has been used to indirectly subsidize abortion providers.
Chris Plante, policy director of the Christian group Family Policy Institute of Washington, called the legal challenge "wrongheaded" and said the new policy "simply returns the Title X regulations back to their original legislative intent: 'None of the funds appropriated under this title shall be used in programs where abortion is a method of family planning.'"
"A doctor can still talk about abortion," Plante said. "The doctor simply can't say, 'There's an abortion provider three streets down, turn left.'"
While the new rule would permit clinic staff to discuss abortion with clients, it would no longer be required that they do so. If patients ask for an abortion referral, staff would be required to give a list of primary care providers with no indication as to which provide abortions.
The list would have to include providers who do not offer abortions, and it could not include clinics or organizations that aren't primary care providers, such as Planned Parenthood, Ferguson said.
Ferguson, who has filed nearly three dozen lawsuits against the Trump administration, including over the travel ban, said he would file the challenge in federal court in Spokane, in eastern Washington, after the policy is made official with its publication in the federal register.
He intends to seek a court order blocking it from taking effect. Eastern Washington has 20 counties, 11 of which would be left without Title X providers, he said.
Across Washington state in 2017, 14,000 patients received federally funded services at 85 of the clinics, many of them operated by Planned Parenthood.
Ferguson said Trump's policy violates the Affordable Care Act, which protects providers and patients from government interference in the health care relationship, and a federal law that requires doctors to provide information about abortion and prenatal care to patients in an unbiased manner.
It also violates the Administrative Procedures Act by contradicting Title X regulations without sufficient justification, and it violates doctors' right to free speech and women's right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade, he alleged.
The National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association said it would sue separately.
Erin Berry, Washington state medical director of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, was one of many advocates who joined Ferguson at his news conference.
"I cannot imagine withholding information from my patients. It's unethical," she said. "Politicians have no business telling me what I can talk to my patients about."