The U.S. House of Representatives acted Feb. 16 to rescind a two-month-old rule from the Obama administration that effectively restricts states from prohibiting funds for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.
The House voted 230-188 for House Joint Resolution 43, which disapproves of the rule and renders it without effect. Representatives took the action under Congress’ authority to review agency rulemaking – in this case, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Five weeks before President Obama left office, HHS issued in mid-December the rule regarding the Title X program, which provides federal funds to states for family planning and preventive health services.
The HHS rule appears most beneficial to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). In recent years, at least 12 states have cut money for Planned Parenthood, some in the wake of various 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 legislation – passed nearly in a party-line vote with Republicans in the majority – must gain approval in the Senate before it can go to President Trump.
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore applauded House leaders “for keeping the currency and consciences of American citizens free from bureaucratic control, and I urge Senate leadership to move in like manner without delay.”
“The facts are clear: When states decide to direct federal monies away from the nation’s largest abortion provider and toward the funding of community health centers, access to healthcare services increases,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in written comments for Baptist Press. “The federal government has the right to do many things, but forcing states to allocate taxpayer monies in support of abortion is not one of them.”
Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, said in a written statement, “States deserve the freedom to choose how and where their taxpayer dollars are spent and they should have the right to prevent taxpayer dollars from supporting abortion providers, particularly when community health centers provide the same services and outnumber abortion clinics” by 20 to 1.
While opponents of the HHS rule commended the House vote, Planned Parenthood decried it.
“Extremists in Congress are trying to make it easier for state politicians to take away people’s health care – specifically, the 4 million people who rely on Title X for birth control and other care,” said PPFA President Cecile Richards in a written release. “This is wrong, and it’s not what the American people want.”
The bill’s sponsor – Republican Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee – denied the measure would defund Planned Parenthood, cut Title X spending or limit abortion rights.
“[W]e are simply voting today to affirm the right of states to fund the healthcare providers that best suit their needs, without fear of reprisal from their own federal government,” Black said in a floor speech before the House vote.
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 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 grants to Planned Parenthood and similar providers free up other funds for use in performing abortions.
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).
Congress is threatening to use the reconciliation process to cut about 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s federal funding and direct it to federally qualified health centers that do not perform abortions. A reconciliation bill enables the Senate to approve a budget-related measure with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster. Both the Senate and House passed such a reconciliation proposal last year, but Obama vetoed the bill.
The ERLC is conducting an online advertising campaign to rally support for the congressional effort to slash federal dollars for Planned Parenthood. The effort is the first of its kind by the ERLC and includes a digital petition for delivery to congressional leaders. The petition is available for signing at erlc.com/initiatives/defund-planned-parenthood.
In the House’s Feb. 16 roll call, two Democrats – Reps. Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Collin Peterson of Minnesota – joined 228 GOP members in the majority. Two Republicans – Reps. Charles Dent of Pennsylvania and John Faso of New York – voted with 186 Democrats against the bill.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)