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Is it a gag rule after all? A closer look at changes to Title X funding regarding abortion.

Planned Parenthood supporters demonstrate on Capitol Hill in July 2017. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The Trump administration has released the language of a proposed rule on federal family planning funding, and abortion rights activists are raising alarm about it.

When health officials revealed Friday that they would be filing a change to which clinics would be eligible for funding, they emphasized that it was not a “gag rule.” Instead, they said they were proposing to strip away a current mandate. It requires organizations that receive Title X funding to counsel women about abortion and provide them with referrals to abortion services. Under the new rules, a provider wouldn't have to talk about abortion at all.

Trump administration will pull funds from groups that perform abortions or provide referrals

This was part of a plan that would require “a bright line of physical as well as financial separation” between Title X family planning programs and ones in which abortion is “supported or referred for as a method of family planning.”

“Contrary to recent media reports,” the White House said in a statement that day, “HHS’s proposal does not include the so-called 'gag rule' on counseling about abortion.” The statement contrasted the new rule with a Reagan administration policy in 1988 that banned any mention of abortion.

The Department of Health and Human Services declined to make the full proposed rule available last week, but it was posted on the HHS website Tuesday. It's consistent with the message the administration provided Friday but is more explicit about what can and cannot be said.

Page 119 states that “A Title X project may not perform, promote, refer for, or support, abortion as a method of family planning, nor take any other affirmative action to assist a patient to secure such an abortion.”

The one exception is if a woman “clearly states that she has already decided to have an abortion.” In this situation, a doctor or other provider should provide “a list of licensed, qualified comprehensive health service providers (some, but not all, of which also provide abortion, in addition to comprehensive prenatal care.)”

So is it or isn't it a “gag rule”?

HHS's view is that there is a difference between counseling and referrals. Counseling — as long as it is not “directive” or expressing an opinion — is allowed. It stated that referrals for abortion are, “by definition, directive” and, therefore, not allowed under its new interpretation of a 2000 regulation that pregnancy counseling be nondirective.

Planned Parenthood, which serves about 41 percent of the patients who receive services through Title X, and other groups that support abortion rights, beg to differ. On Wednesday, Planned Parenthood started a #NoGagRule campaign that will include a rally in front of the U.S. Capitol at 5:30 p.m.

“This is one of the largest-scale and most dangerous attacks we’ve seen on women’s rights and reproductive health care in this country. This policy is straight out of the Handmaid’s Tale — yet, it’s taking effect in America in 2018,” Dawn Laguens, executive vice president for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement that referenced Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel.

Georgeanne Usova, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the policy is “putting the health and lives of countless people at risk in service of this administration’s extreme antiabortion agenda.”

Likewise Jenn Conti, a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, said the " 'gag rule' is not only unconscionable, but it undermines medical ethics by allowing health-care professionals to withhold accurate and timely medical information from patients.”

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