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Judge rules Planned Parenthood funding challenge is premature

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By Brad Kutner/Courthouse News

WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge on Monday sided with the government in a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and two of its affiliates that argued Trump administration changes to the federal Title X funding limit the care they can provide to women.

The lawsuit, which was filed in May, claims recent changes in Department of Health and Human Services policy unfairly benefited religious organizations and violated sections of Title X, the federal funding program which offers money for family planning services provided by groups like Planned Parenthood.

The new HHS policy stressed advocacy for “the research informed benefits of delaying sex” and “cooperation with community-based and faith-based organizations.”

In a statement released with the filing of their lawsuit, the plaintiffs said the changes were “illegal” and would result in “devastating consequences and threaten health care for millions.”

But U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden, a Donald Trump appointee, said the plaintiffs’ challenge was premature.

“The Plaintiffs ask this Court to intervene before anything of legal effect has occurred,” wrote McFadden in a 38-page opinion. “Courts cannot review substantive objections to a non-final agency action, nor can they require formal rulemaking for change in agency procedure.”

Going further, McFadden said the department soundly argued that the policy change was about “how an agency decision will be made, and is not a final agency action itself.” Because of that distinction, Planned Parenthood does not yet have grounds for the agency’s policy to be reviewed, the judge wrote.

“This announcement was simply a solicitation of offers, kicking off an application process that will result in legally binding contracts only after offers are accepted and grants are awarded,” McFadden wrote.

Representatives of the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Courthouse News.

Title X was signed into law in 1970 to provide low income individuals with access to family planning services as well STD testing, wellness exams and other services. According to Planned Parenthood, the money allocated under the program — $286.5 million in FY 2017 — supports about 4,000 health centers across the country. And while Planned Parenthood only receives about 13 percent of the allotted funds, it serves 41% percent of all Title X patients.

Under the both the Bush and Obama administrations, grants added a focus on “related preventative health services” intended to enhance “the overall health of individuals,” instead of just reproductive health. The Bush administration also prioritized the awarding of grants to groups that partnerd with faith-based organizations. The Obama administration rolled back that policy in 2009.

While Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics are eligible to receive Title X money, they have been barred from spending it on abortions, except in limited instances, since 1976.

Those limited cases are when continuing the pregnancy could endanger the life of the mother or when the pregnancy is the product of rape or incest.

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