‘Protect-Life Rule’ Shows White House, Not Congress, Driving Pro-Life Victories

Trump’s recent move to restrict Title X funding of Planned Parenthood contrasts with the ineffectiveness of Congress to deliver life-affirming legislation.

Demonstrators gather during a Jan. 17 protest vigil sponsored by The Christian Defense Coalition and Priests for Life outside of the Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Carol Whitehill Moses Center.
Demonstrators gather during a Jan. 17 protest vigil sponsored by The Christian Defense Coalition and Priests for Life outside of the Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Carol Whitehill Moses Center. (photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has dealt a blow to abortion providers’ access to Title X family-planning funds, cutting off millions of dollars to Planned Parenthood and diverting them to more life-affirming alternatives.

The finalized “Protect-Life Rule” from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) follows in the wake of other decisive actions on pro-life policy from the executive branch that indicate the White House, not Congress, is the avenue for delivering pro-life victories on abortion during the Trump presidency.

“It has been a busy season for the administration,” Chuck Donovan, president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, told the Register, saying President Donald Trump’s White House has been reaching for the “low-hanging fruit” of pro-life policy within its regulatory authority.

The Protect-Life Rule requires organizations receiving Title X’s $286 million in family-planning funding to have physical and financial separation from organizations providing abortion. It will likely affect an estimated $60 million for Planned Parenthood.

Public funds now account for only 34% of Planned Parenthood’s $1.6-billion income, and with a more than $244-million profit margin, the abortion giant easily has the funds to absorb the lost revenue. But Donovan explained the loss of Title X funding hurts Planned Parenthood’s claim of government approval, which it translates into political leverage, more.

Donovan said the administration has opened an opportunity for pro-life organizations to access Title X funding as subgrantees for health-care services that do not involve abortion or contraception.

“We’re hoping the [pro-life pregnancy-resource and health] centers will get together to get access to these funds,” he said.

In other pro-life moves, the administration has expanded the Mexico City Policy, which bars foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning” from receiving U.S. family-planning assistance and global health funds, started to strengthen regulations on conscience protections, and is ordering health plans receiving federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act to send participants a separate bill for elective abortion coverage.

Gregory Schleppenbach, associate director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, told the Register that the Trump administration has placed many officials in the government who are committed to the pro-life cause who have succeeded in advancing anti-abortion policy more than past Republican administrations. Schleppenbach said the administration also has opened up more funding opportunities to organizations that are not involved in abortion or contraception-related endeavors.

But more work remains, such as removing funding for research on aborted fetal tissue and embryonic stem cells. “We’d also like to see conscience protections like the Weldon Amendment also enforced,” Schleppenbach said, referring to a federal law that threatened states with the loss of federal funds if they discriminate against institutional or individual health-care entities that decline to pay for, provide coverage of or refer for abortions.

The Trump administration took its first steps to enforce federal conscience-protection laws after the HHS Office for Civil Rights declared Jan. 18 that the state of California discriminated against pregnancy-resource centers in violation of the Weldon Amendment and the Coates-Snowe Amendment (which prohibits discrimination against medical programs and students that refuse to participate in abortion), putting billions of federal dollars at stake. California’s Reproductive “FACT” Act required licensed pregnancy centers to post contact information about free and subsidized abortions and contraception but was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2018, in a 5-4 decision.

With the Democratic takeover of the House, the Trump administration will not be seeing any further pro-life legislation coming from Congress. But unlike when Democrats took over the House in 2009, the House majority now is solidly pro-abortion in its legislative outlook and has made removing anti-abortion legislation a priority. Trump, for his part, has vowed to veto any legislation that attempts to strip away pro-life or anti-abortion laws and regulations.


Congressional Inaction

But the White House’s success also underlines the failures of the GOP Congress to drive pro-life legislation. Donovan explained that Congress’ processes have gotten to the point that legislation related to abortion will not advance “until one side has a decisive advantage.”

The Republican Party, for example, never made good on its pledge to defund Planned Parenthood of more than a half-billion dollars in government largesse — even though the party controlled both the House and the Senate during Trump’s first two years in office.

Pro-life leaders on Capitol Hill have blamed the Senate and its rules for standing in the way of pro-life bills becoming law. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the co-chairman of the bipartisan Pro-Life Caucus, has argued the Senate’s filibuster rules should be scrapped so that pro-life legislation can get a simple majority vote instead of trying to reach the “magic number” of 60 votes to break the filibuster.

In certain respects, Schleppenbach wished the GOP-led Congress had pushed harder on measures such as the Conscience Protection Act, a bill to strengthen conscience protections for health professionals who objected to abortion and contraception. Schleppenbach said the GOP leadership had been supportive, but the Senate’s filibuster rules made passing pro-life priorities over the objections of pro-abortion Democrats incredibly difficult.

“The issue is when you can’t pass it in the Senate … the only option is to insert it in a must-pass bill,” he said. But even then, the GOP ended up stripping out the conscience-protection provisions, he said, because significant numbers of Democrats in the Senate were willing to shut down the government over abortion.


The Art of the Pro-Life Deal  

The defining feature that separates Trump’s leadership from previous GOP political leadership in Congress and the White House may be found in Trump’s “Art of the Deal,” according to Robert George, a constitutional scholar and the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.

George, who has been critical of Trump in various respects, told the Register that Trump has fulfilled his side of the deal with pro-life voters: Trump is a “highly transactional politician,” and by fulfilling his promises to his pro-life base, particularly in the selection of constitutionalist judges to the federal judiciary, Trump expects their votes to carry him through the 2020 election, just as they did in 2016.

“He’s a deal-maker who knows the pro-life position he’s taken is working for him politically,” George said.

George said the approach stands in contrast to historical attitudes among the Republican leadership, which have not succeeded in keeping their legislative promises and may have taken pro-life votes for granted on the basis that without a viable pro-life alternative in the Democratic Party, pro-life voters have nowhere to go.

One case in point is the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. George said Hadley Arkes, a political scientist and professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College, conceived the legislation, and together they lobbied Congress to enact the bill so federal law would protect unborn children who survive an abortion attempt. The bill passed in 2002, but after the GOP removed the bill’s penalties in order to placate Democratic opposition in the Senate, which rendered the law “toothless.” George said pro-life advocates tried to get the penalties put back following the 2004 election, when President George W. Bush had strong pro-life Republican majorities in the House and Senate, “and nothing happened.”

Only in 2019, after Democrats put their abortion extremism on display in New York and Virginia — an action Trump called out forcefully in his State of the Union address — have Republicans in Congress finally made fighting for the issue a priority. A GOP-led effort to pass the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act failed in the Senate, after a 53-44 cloture vote fell seven votes short of ending a filibuster and allowing the measure to proceed to a floor vote.

George, however, said Trump’s transactional nature can be seen in other policy areas, too: He told the working class he would fight for them in trade deals and has fought for them, even to the point of provoking a trade war with China. And he has been willing to spend even much more “political capital” fighting aggressively for his border wall, to the point of partially shutting down the government for 35 days.

George said that people in the pro-life movement have opposing views on those actions. But they need to remind the president that they expect the same kind of intensity when it comes to pro-life priorities, particularly defunding Planned Parenthood, which carried out 332,000 abortions of human beings in 2018.

“The pro-life movement needs to be clear-eyed on this,” he said. “The president is transactional, and a deal is a deal. The pro-life movement needs to be vigilant that he keeps his word.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.