Trump ‘gag rule’ on abortion referral can be enforced, U.S. appeals court rules

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – A sharply divided federal appeals court on Monday said the Trump administration may enforce a rule labeled by critics as a “gag rule” that could deprive abortion providers of federal funding for family planning.

In a 7-4 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling last June by a unanimous three-judge panel to lift injunctions won by California, Oregon and Washington against the rule, which deprives clinics that provide abortion referrals of Title X family planning funds.

The rule was meant to help President Donald Trump fulfill a 2016 campaign pledge to end federal support for Planned Parenthood, which received about $60 million annually, or one-fifth, of Title X funds.

Planned Parenthood left the program last August rather than comply with the rule, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In a statement, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the “troubling” decision helps Trump “roll back women’s access to reproductive healthcare.”

Planned Parenthood’s acting president Alexis McGill Johnson called on Congress to overturn the rule, which she said created “egregious barriers” to healthcare for low-income people.

A U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman said the decision properly upholds HHS’ prohibition on using taxpayer money to “subsidize abortion” through Title X.

Writing for Monday’s majority, Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta said HHS was owed “broad deference” and acted reasonably, not arbitrarily or capriciously, in adopting a “less restrictive” rule than the one blessed by the Supreme Court in 1988.

“There is no ‘gag’ on abortion counseling,” Ikuta wrote, saying the rule allows healthcare providers to discuss, though not to encourage, abortion.

The appeals court returned the cases to federal district courts for further proceedings. A federal judge in Baltimore on Feb. 14 blocked the rule’s enforcement in Maryland.

Circuit Judge Richard Paez dissented, saying the rule would deprive people of cancer screening, HIV testing and other needed healthcare, and undermine Congress’ intent that patients be able to communicate openly with healthcare providers.

“The consequences will be borne by the millions of women who turn to Title X-funded clinics for lifesaving care and the very contraceptive services that have caused rates of unintended pregnancy – and abortion – to plummet,” he wrote. “I strongly dissent.”

All seven judges in the majority were appointed by Republican presidents, including two by Trump. The dissenters were appointed by Democratic presidents.

The cases in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals include California v Azar et al, No. 19-15974; Oregon et al v Azar et al, No. 19-35386; and Washington et al v Azar et al, No. 19-35394.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Sonya Hepinstall)

Breaking precedent, Trump to attend Washington anti-abortion march

(Reuters) – Donald Trump will become the first U.S. president to attend the annual “March for Life” to be held in Washington on Friday, organizers said, underscoring his outspoken support for the anti-abortion movement as it celebrates key legislative gains.

Thousands of protesters from around the country were expected to converge in the nation’s capital for the event, which began in 1973 after the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Roe v. Wade decision, established a woman’s constitutional right to get an abortion.

“See you on Friday … Big Crowd!” Trump posted on Twitter on Tuesday in response to a tweet from March for Life promoting the event.

With the 2020 presidential campaign season heating up, abortion remains one of the most divisive issues in the United States. Opponents cite religious beliefs to declare it immoral, while abortion-rights activists say the procedure is protected by a constitutional guarantee that gives women control over their bodies and futures.

About 58% of American adults say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last year.

Even so, anti-abortion advocates made significant legislative strides in 2019. Twenty-five bans on various types of abortions were signed into law, according to the Guttmacher Institute, although many have not taken effect because of pending legal challenges.

Conservative lawmakers have said some of the bans were passed with the knowledge that they likely would be struck down in court but with the hope that those rulings might prompt the Supreme Court to review its Roe v. Wade decision.

In Roe v. Wade, the court found that certain state laws outlawing abortion were an unconstitutional violation of a woman’s right to privacy, effectively legalizing abortion nationwide.

Even though he had declared support for abortion rights years earlier, Trump vowed during his 2016 campaign to appoint Supreme Court justices he believed would overturn Roe. Since his election, he has appointed two justices to the court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, cementing the court’s 5-4 conservative majority.

“You’ve heard a lot of religious leaders and a lot of Republicans say that this president is the biggest champion for life … the biggest advocate for the pro-life movement in history,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters on Thursday.

March For Life President Jeanne Mancini said the organization “was deeply honored” to welcome Trump in person, after he delivered televised remarks in support of the anti-abortion movement at the 2019 march. Vice President Mike Pence attended the event in person last year.

Past U.S. presidents have opted to stay from the march. Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both delivered remarks remotely.

In June, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case that could drastically limit doctors’ ability to provide abortions in Louisiana, a Republican stronghold state. The case will test the willingness of the court to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous conservative states.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)

Trump wants to end requiring U.S. religious welfare groups to tell clients of options

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Religious social service providers receiving funds from the U.S. government would no longer have to tell their clients about other, possibly secular organizations that offer similar help under changes the Trump administration proposed on Thursday.

Conservative Christians, a key bloc in President Donald Trump’s Republican Party, have pushed to lift the requirement that religiously affiliated service groups must tell clients about alternative providers if they receive federal money. They also must post information on referrals and track the referrals they make.

The requirement has been a flashpoint in the national fight over abortion.

Supporters say it ensures women understand the availability of safe and legal abortions in their areas. Some Christian-affiliated pregnancy centers opposed to abortion say that supplying information about abortion providers compromises their beliefs.

The Trump administration argues that the requirement puts an undue burden on groups linked to churches and treats them unfairly, presuming that because of their religious affiliation they will provide ideologically driven care or lie to clients. It says there is no similar requirement for secular organizations.

To end the requirement, the administration is pursuing rule changes at nine government agencies that carry out policy on health, labor, education, food, housing, justice, homeland security, veterans and international aid.

With national headlines on Thursday focused on Trump’s impeachment trial, the White House dedicated the day to actions it said would protect religious freedom, capped by an afternoon event on prayer in public schools.

But unraveling the alternative provider requirement is likely to receive the most attention.

It is also sure to anger advocates for patients’, women’s, and civil rights.

They say that individuals should be able to receive treatment from government-funded groups aligned with their personal beliefs or that do not have a religious affiliation.

They also say people should have clear and accurate information about all the taxpayer-backed options for assistance in their area, and that the government needs to ensure that in providing money to nonprofits it is not funding Christian proselytizing.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Jonathan Oatis)

Hotline launches to help Polish women travel abroad for abortion

Hotline launches to help Polish women travel abroad for abortion
By Sonia Elks

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Women in Poland facing some of Europe’s tightest restrictions on abortion will be offered advice and funding to travel abroad to get a termination through a new “Abortion Without Borders” initiative launched on Wednesday.

The hotline service will give advice about how to safely buy abortion pills online and refer women to medical abortion providers in Germany, the Netherlands and Britain.

Women struggling to afford the procedure will also be given financial support to make the trip, said organisers of the initiative, a collaboration between six Polish and international groups.

“Abortion Without Borders believes that getting an abortion shouldn’t depend on where someone is born and what passport they carry,” they said in a statement.

“Until everyone who needs an abortion can get one locally, we will be here.”

Poland only allows doctors to grant abortions if the fetus has a severe abnormality, if the mother’s health is threatened or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Women’s rights groups say it is often very hard to find a doctor willing to carry out an abortion even if the conditions are met.

Only about 1,000 women get a termination in Poland each year, according to official figures, mostly for cases of fetal damage.

Abortion rights campaigners estimate tens of thousands more access abortion unofficially, either by buying pills online or travelling abroad for the procedure.

Organisers of “Abortion Without Borders” posed with suitcases at Warsaw’s main train station to highlight the situation of women forced to travel abroad to get a medical abortion.

They said all their activities were legal and there was no law in Poland criminalising women who took action to end their pregnancy or had an abortion abroad.

The initiative was launched by Polish abortion rights groups Abortion Dream Team and Kobiety w Sieci (Women on the Net), together with four other European and international groups.

Organisers said they hoped to break down stigma and uncertainty for Polish women seeking abortions and to reach those who would otherwise be unable to afford the procedure.

“The only person with the right to decide to continue or end a pregnancy is the person who is pregnant – not governments or churches or bad laws or policies,” said Justyna Wydrzynska from Kobiety w Sieci.

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

U.S. raps global health summit over abortion, sex education

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ten countries – including the United States, Brazil and Egypt – criticised a global conference on sexual and reproductive health on Thursday, saying it promoted abortion and sex education.

Heads of state, financial institutions and donors were among the 9,500 delegates in Nairobi this week to address maternal mortality, violence against women and voluntary family planning.

But 10 of the United Nation’s 192 member states said they did not support the International Conference on Population and Development’s (ICPD) use of the term “sexual and reproductive health and rights” as it could be used to promote abortion.

Valerie Huber, senior policy advisor with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said not all countries had been fully consulted ahead of the event, organised by the United Nations, Denmark and Kenya.

“There is no international right to abortion. In fact, international law clearly states that everyone has the right to life,” said Huber.

“We cannot support sex education that fails to adequately engage parents and which promotes abortion as a method of family planning,” she said in a joint statement on behalf of the group.

In 2017, President Donald Trump reinstated a decades-old, U.S. government policy that restricts international aid to charities that support abortion.

The so-called global gag rule has forced the closure of health clinics, outreach programs and refugee services by charities, risking the health of millions of women, reproductive rights experts said.

UNDER ATTACK

Sexual and reproductive rights campaigners said the U.S.-led statement was discouraging with women’s rights already threatened by far-right, populist rhetoric across the world, including moves to restrict abortion in the United States.

The ICPD conference marks 25 years since a landmark summit in Cairo when nations agreed to address issues such as maternal health, violence against women and equal opportunities.

Every day, more than 800 women die from preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth, according to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA). More than 230 million women want to prevent pregnancy but are not using modern contraception.

One in three women globally have faced some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the UNFPA.

Organisers of the Nairobi summit denied any suggestion the event was exclusively focused on abortion or sex education.

“I believe their statement is based on some misunderstandings of what this is about,” IB Petersen, Denmark’s special envoy for the ICPD, told a news conference.

“This is not a pro-abortion summit – it is about the ICPD program of action – abortion is part of that.”

Petersen said the summit had already yielded results, citing a pledge by Kenya to end female genital mutilation by 2022.

Almost $10 billion in investments has also been pledged by countries – including Britain, Norway, Germany and Denmark – and a host of private organisations.

The UNFPA estimates countries need about $264 billion to end maternal deaths, gender-based violence, child marriage, and provide family planning to all women by 2030.

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Claire Cozens and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Federal judge blocks Alabama abortion ban from being enforced

Federal judge blocks Alabama abortion ban from being enforced
(Reuters) – A federal judge blocked Alabama on Tuesday from enforcing the strictest abortion laws in the country, which were due to come into effect next month and would ban all abortions unless a mother’s health was in danger.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, had signed the bill into law in May. Those performing abortions would be committing a felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison. A woman who receives an abortion would not be held criminally liable.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued to overturn the law, which clashes with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade in 1973 that established a constitutional right to abortion.

Conservative Republicans have sought to enact a wave of abortion restrictions around the country in the hopes that one case or another might reach the Supreme Court and lead to the erosion of the Roe v. Wade ruling.

Judge Myron H. Thompson of the United States District Court in Middle Alabama has blocked the Alabama abortion ban from being enforced until the lawsuit is resolved.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Northern Ireland prepares for momentous abortion, same-sex marriage changes

Northern Ireland prepares for momentous abortion, same-sex marriage changes
By Amanda Ferguson

BELFAST (Reuters) – Campaigners who fought for decades to end Northern Ireland’s same sex-marriage ban and restrictions on abortion prepared on Monday for a momentous change to the laws on both at the stroke of midnight.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that does not allow same-sex marriage. Also, unlike England, Scotland and Wales, laws in Northern Ireland forbid abortion except where a mother’s life is at risk, bans that have been upheld by the region’s block of conservative politicians.

But an overwhelming vote by British lawmakers in July to compel the government in London to overhaul the laws if Belfast’s devolved executive had not been restored by Oct. 21 is set to kick in with little or no hope of politicians ending the local parliament’s near three-year hiatus.

Advocacy groups have planned a number of events on Monday to usher in the changes.

“We are not going to stick with the guilt and the shame any longer. Tomorrow the law changes in this place, and for the first time in Northern Ireland, women will be free,” Pro-choice campaigner Dawn Purvis told a public meeting in Belfast

“Free to choose if, when and how many children they will have in the care of health-care professionals. This is a very emotional day for many here.”

Abortion rights were long opposed in Northern Ireland by religious conservatives in both the Protestant community that supports continued British rule and the Catholic community that favours union with the traditionally Catholic Irish Republic.

Pressure has mounted, however, to change the Victorian-era laws in recent years, particularly after the neighbouring Irish Republic voted overwhelmingly last year to repeal a similarly restrictive ban, demonstrating a stark change in attitudes on an island once known for its religious conservatism.

If a new devolved government is not formed by midnight, abortion will be decriminalised, beginning a consultation on what the framework for services should look like, which is due to be finalised and approved by March 2020.

“This is a bad law being implemented through a bad process leading to bad consequences for both women and unborn children,” said Dawn McAvoy from the anti-abortion Both Lives Matter group.

Opinion has also changed on same-sex marriage. But despite opinion polls showing most in the region in favour, previous attempts to follow the Irish Republic in legalising it have been blocked by the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), using a special veto intended to prevent discrimination towards one community over another.

It will take the British parliament until mid-January to bring in the new legislation, setting up Feb. 14, 2020 – Valentine’s Day – as the first opportunity for same-sex couples to marry once they give the required 28-days’ notice.

(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson; Editing by Padraic Halpin, Peter Cooney and Giles Elgood)

Supreme Court takes up major Louisiana abortion case

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to take up a major abortion case that could lead to new curbs on access to the procedure as it considers the legality of a Republican-backed Louisiana law that imposes restrictions on abortion doctors.

The justices will hear an appeal by abortion provider Hope Medical Group for Women, which sued to try to block the law, of a lower court ruling upholding the measure. The Shreveport-based Hope Medical Group said implementation of the law would prompt the closure of two of the state’s three abortion clinics. The court will also hear a separate appeal by the state claiming that the abortion clinics do not have legal standing to sue.

The law includes a requirement that doctors who perform abortions have a difficult-to-obtain arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of the abortion clinic.

The Supreme Court struck down a similar Texas requirement in 2016 when conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four liberal justices to defend abortion rights, but Kennedy retired in 2018 and Republican President Donald Trump replaced him with conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, with the court moving further to the right.

The case will test the willingness of the court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority that includes two Trump appointees, to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous conservative states. Anti-abortion activists are hoping the court will scale back or even overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

The court will review a September 2018 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the Louisiana law. The Supreme Court in February on a 5-4 vote prevented the law from going into effect while litigation over its legality continued.

The justices on Friday took no action on another abortion-related case concerning the state of Indiana’s effort to revive an abortion-related law requiring women to have an ultrasound 18 hours before having an abortion.

A ruling in the Louisiana case is due by the end of June.

The law was passed in 2014 but courts have prevented it from taking effect.

Chief Justice John Roberts, one of the court’s five conservatives, joined the court’s four liberals in the majority when the court blocked the law from going into effect.

A federal district judge struck down Louisiana’s law in January 2016, saying it created an impermissible undue burden on a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion under existing Supreme Court precedent. The appeals court revived the law, saying there was no evidence any clinics in Louisiana would close as a result of the “admitting privileges” requirement.

The high court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973 and reaffirmed it in 1992 in a ruling that disallowed abortion laws that placed an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

“An undue burden exists, and therefore a provision of law is invalid if its purpose or effect is to place substantial obstacles in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability,” the court wrote in the 1992 ruling.

Since Kavanaugh joined the court last October, it has sent mixed signals on abortion. The court in June declined to hear a bid by Alabama to revive a Republican-enacted law that would have effectively banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In May, it refused to consider reinstating Indiana’s ban on abortions performed because of fetal disability or the sex or race of the fetus while upholding the state’s requirement that fetal remains be buried or cremated after an abortion.

Various conservative states in 2019 have enacted new laws that ban abortion at an early stage of pregnancy. None of those laws has taken effect.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Tens of thousands march for ban on abortions in Slovakia

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands marched in Slovakia’s capital on Sunday calling for a total ban on abortions in the predominantly Catholic central European country.

Abortion laws in Slovakia are relatively liberal compared to those in countries like Poland or Malta, which have among the strictest laws in the European Union and often allow them only in cases like rape.

In Slovakia, on-demand abortions are legal up until 12 weeks of pregnancy while abortions for health reasons are allowed until 24 weeks.

Conservative and far-right lawmakers want to allow them only to up to six or eight weeks of pregnancy or ban them outright, and parliament starts debating draft laws to restrict abortions this month.

It is unclear if the proposals will become law since the ruling Smer – a leftist, socially conservative party – and junior center-right Slovak National Party in the government, have not said whether they will back any of them.

Abortions have fallen in the country of 5.4 million to 6,000 last year, from almost 11,000 a decade ago. A Focus agency opinion poll this month found 55.5% of people disagreed with restricting abortions while 34.6% supported the move.

Protesters carrying signs saying “A human is human regardless of size” and “Who kills an unborn child kills the future of the nation” marched in the capital on Sunday demanding a total ban on abortions, including in cases of severe birth defects or rape.

“The life of every human is invaluable, therefore it needs to be protected from conception until natural death,” one of the protest organizers, backed by the Catholic church, said on stage.

The organizers estimated turnout at the protest at about 50,000.

The ruling Smer party has led Slovakia nearly non-stop since 2006 and has built its base by lifting social benefits amid years of economic growth and backing conservative issues.

Ahead of an election next year, the party pledged to back legislation to ban gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Slovak law does not recognize same-sex civil unions.

The most recent official census in 2011 found 62% of the country identify as Roman Catholics, while 6% are Protestants.

(Reporting By Tatiana Jancarikova, editing by Deepa Babington)