Two major organizations that promote birth control filed lawsuits in federal court Wednesday seeking to block the Trump administration from shifting national family planning policy to stress abstinence and potentially limit counseling for adolescents.
One of the suits was filed by Planned Parenthood, which serves 41 percent of the 4 million low-income Americans who receive subsidized services through the Title X family-planning program. The other suit was filed by the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, which contends the policy shift would reduce access to the most effective contraceptive methods and result in more unintended pregnancies.
The target of both lawsuits is a set of guidelines and priorities announced in February by the Department of Health and Human Services for the next round of Title X grant applications, projected to total about $260 million.
An HHS spokeswoman, Caitlin Oakley, said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
The HHS funding document made repeated favorable mention of "natural family planning" — which encompasses the rhythm method and other strategies for avoiding pregnancy without using contraceptives like the birth-control pill. HHS said it will favor programs for adolescents that "that do not normalize sexual risk behaviors, but instead clearly communicate the research-informed benefits of delaying sex or returning to a sexually risk-free status."
The two lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., contend that the HHS policy violates terms of the Title X statute that Congress adopted with bipartisan support in 1970. The suits also contended that the policy was adopted without going through the proper process required for changing federal regulations.
"After nearly 50 years of success for Title X, the Trump administration is trying to undermine it by shifting to a narrow and ideological vision of how people should live their lives," said Clare Coleman, CEO of the national family planning association.
According to the association, health centers receiving Title X funding helped women avert 822,300 unintended pregnancies in 2015, and the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate would have been 31 percent higher without those services.
The changes proposed by HHS would divert funds from providers of high-quality preventive health services, the association said, and instead favor "inexperienced providers that emphasize abstinence only until marriage."
Planned Parenthood's lawsuit was filed on behalf of its affiliates in Wisconsin, Ohio and Utah — states where Planned Parenthood says it serves a large majority of Title X patients.
The lawsuits surface as Planned Parenthood faces a new effort by anti-abortion groups and conservative Republicans in Congress to eliminate its role in Title X because, in addition to its other services, it provides abortions.
In letters sent this week, some GOP members of Congress and dozens of anti-abortion groups are urging the Trump administration to impose new rules that would bar Title X money to any reproductive health provider that either performs abortion or refers patients to other places where they could get one.
"By shifting funding to clinic sites that do not perform or refer for abortion," anti-abortion groups wrote HHS Secretary Alex Azar, "you will send a strong message that abortion is not family planning."
In February, HHS officials said Planned Parenthood was welcome to apply for the next round of Title X grants — even though the newly announced criteria seemed to cast doubt on its chances of success.
"We encourage all qualified organizations to apply, especially those proposing innovative strategies that would increase the number of clients served and the quality of services provided," said Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir.