By Jennifer Calfas
Maine lawmakers are weighing legislation that would restore funding to the state's family-planning network after abortion providers exited a federal funding program last year over policy changes.
Lawmakers introduced a bill this week that would allocate more than $2 million a year -- and another $1 million into a fund to last through June -- to help support 50 family-planning clinics in the state. Those centers provide services to 23,000 patients a year and include abortion clinics.
"Every Mainer, regardless of income or where they live, should have access to comprehensive, high-quality, and affordable sexual- and reproductive-health care," said Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, the Democrat who sponsored the bill.
Maine Family Planning, a nonprofit that operates 18 clinics in the state, and Planned Parenthood, which operates four, pulled out of the federal Title X program in 2019 after a Trump administration rule forced funding recipients to physically separate their abortion care from other services and stop referring patients for abortions. Abortion-rights activists call the policy change a gag rule, arguing that abortion providers around the country had no choice but to forgo federal dollars. Supporters of the policy change say taxpayer dollars shouldn't support abortion services.
Opponents challenged the new rules in a number of lawsuits last year. The Ninth Circuit Court, considered the country's most liberal appeals court, upheld the Trump administration rules in June.
Now, abortion-rights activists and lawmakers are aiming to fill the funding gaps with fundraising efforts and legislative action. Lawmakers in New York are considering a bill similar to Maine's legislation, and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this year signed a law allocating $9.5 million to affected family-planning providers. Massachusetts and Maryland also passed bills securing funding in light of the Title X rule change.
Title X is a federal program that provides grants for family-planning services like birth control and other contraceptives, pregnancy tests and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases and certain types of cancers. The funding doesn't support abortion services.
About a quarter of clinics that once received Title X funding left the program due to the 2019 policy changes -- affecting more than 1.6 million female patients, nearly half of all of those who seek care nationwide, according to a recent report from the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that supports abortion rights.
Some providers have felt the effects on their operations and ramped up fundraising efforts to make up the shortfall.
Maine was among several states hit hardest by the departure of Title X funds, according to the Guttmacher Institute report. Private fundraising campaigns and reserve funds helped soften the 25%-30% blow to Maine Family Planning's budget, said communications director Deirdre Fulton-McDonough. But those efforts weren't sustainable, and the organization looked to the legislature for long-term solutions, she said.
"We always believed these services were in the public interest," said Ms. Fulton-McDonough. "They warrant public funding."
The new state law would support services like birth control and STD testing, she said, and would keep clinics in the more rural areas of the state affordable and accessible.
While the bill wouldn't fund abortions, opponents argue public funding would still support the facilities where the procedure is conducted. "You're still paying the electricity; you're still paying the rent of the building," said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League in Maine, which is against the bill.
Maine Rep. Kathy Javner, a Republican who opposes the bill, said her constituents don't want tax increases and highlighted other fiscal priorities, like infrastructure issues.
Maine lawmakers say the bill will likely pass the Democratic-controlled legislature. In 2019, Maine enacted laws covering abortion services through state-sponsored health insurance and expanding who can provide abortions.
Write to Jennifer Calfas at Jennifer.Calfas@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 14, 2020 17:37 ET (22:37 GMT)
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