Just weeks after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving a Trump-era rule preventing federally funded health care providers in a family planning program from referring patients for abortions, the Biden administration asked the court to drop the case.
All the parties in the case consented to ask that it not be heard, in expectation of President Joe Biden withdrawing the rule.
Biden telegraphed that he would do so when he issued an executive memorandum on Jan. 28 directing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to consider rescinding the rule governing the family planning program for poor people under Title X of the Public Health Services Act.
The rule “has caused the termination of Federal family planning funding for many women’s healthcare providers and puts women’s health at risk by making it harder for women to receive complete medical information,” Biden said in the document.
A law called the Hyde Amendment bars federal funding from covering abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is considered at risk.
The petition for review in the case, American Medical Association (AMA) v. Cochran, court file 20-429, was granted Feb. 22. The request to dismiss the case on consent of all the parties was filed after normal business hours on March 12.
The case is actually three lawsuits, which the court combined. The other two actions are Cochran v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore and Oregon v. Cochran. Norris Cochran is the acting secretary of HHS. All the parties in two of the lawsuits filed a joint stipulation to dismiss with the court on March 12. A separate joint stipulation to dismiss was filed in the Baltimore case the same day.
On Feb. 22, 2019, HHS issued a rule revising regulations governing the Title X family planning program, which serves about 4 million low-income Americans. The new rule was hailed by pro-life groups as a step in the right direction.
In its filing with the high court, the AMA praised the program, stating:
“For five decades, the Title X program has been an extraordinary success, serving to ensure that all individuals have access to family planning care—regardless of where they live or their economic means. The program provides vital health care services, like contraception, testing, and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, breast and cervical cancer screening, and pregnancy testing and counseling.”
The aspect of the new rule that proved controversial was a ban on referring patients “for abortion as a method of family planning,” HHS said in 2019. This gag rule, as critics called it, “does not bar nondirective counseling on abortion, but eliminates the requirement that Title X providers offer abortion counseling and referral.”
The rule “protects Title X healthcare providers so that they are not required to choose between participating in the program and violating their own consciences by providing abortion counseling and referral,” HHS said.
That same year, various federal courts blocked the rule but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed it to take effect, after which abortion provider Planned Parenthood withdrew from the program. In 2020, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a conflicting ruling, upholding a lower court ruling preventing it from taking effect.
On Oct. 1, 2020, the AMA argued in a petition filed with the Supreme Court that the rule prevented medical doctors participating in the program from recommending abortions to their patients and this violated medical ethics.
“Every leading medical organization in the United States opposed the Rule. All were unequivocal that it would violate fundamental principles of medical ethics,” the petition stated.
The AMA warned in comments on the rule that it would “dangerously interfere with the patient-physician relationship and conflict with physicians’ ethical obligations,” and that “long-serving Title X providers made clear they would be forced out of the program—resulting in a mass exodus of providers to the detriment of patients and public health.”