A federal judge will allow a new rule on family planning funds to take effect even as a Maine abortion provider challenges it in court.

Judge Lance Walker, photographed in 2016 Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Maine Family Planning and the national Center for Reproductive Rights sued the Trump administration in U.S. District Court in Portland this year, claiming the rule will limit access to abortion services. It is one of several similar lawsuits filed across the country.

While judges in some other states did block the rule, a panel of federal appeals court judges decided last month that it could take effect immediately. In Maine, U.S. District Judge Lance Walker also decided Wednesday that he would not block the federal government from implementing the rule as that lawsuit proceeds.

Federal Title X funds pay for birth control, STD tests and cancer screenings for low-income people. The new rule from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services bans family planning clinics that receive Title X funds from making abortion referrals – what critics are calling a “gag rule.” Those clinics also would be barred from providing abortion services in the same buildings where they provide the health services paid for by the Title X funds, a requirement that would increase costs for many providers.

Maine Family Planning has said that expense would force it to stop offering abortion services at all but one of its family planning clinics in the state. Under that scenario, Mainers would have only three publicly accessible locations for abortion care across the state – the flagship Maine Family Planning Clinic in Augusta, the Mabel Wadsworth Center in Bangor and the Planned Parenthood location in Portland.

It is not yet clear what the immediate impact of the judge’s decision will have on clinics in Maine. The organization’s president was not available for an interview Wednesday, but a news release included a comment from him.

“In Maine, where we grapple with poverty, substance use disorder, and a largely rural environment, Title X clinics have long played a key role in alleviating barriers to health care access,” George Hill, president and CEO of Maine Family Planning, said in the release. “The gag rule would wreak havoc across our statewide network and on comprehensive reproductive healthcare across the country. We will do everything we can to block this rule.”

Maine Family Planning receives $2 million annually in Title X funding. The agency operates its 18 clinics and shares the federal funds with 29 other health centers across Maine. A spokeswoman said Maine Family Planning provides about 500 abortions each year.

A senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights said that organization is still considering the next steps, which could include an appeal.

“We obviously will be continuing our case on the merits in front of Judge Walker,” attorney Emily Nestler said.

Abortion is a legal medical procedure, but federal laws generally prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the woman.

Walker stressed that his decision does not strike down any rights to abortion that have been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, and he said it is not his role to judge “the wisdom of public policy.” But he wrote that in part that he was not convinced the harms alleged by Maine Family Planning were so immediate that he needed to block the rule right away.

“Since the start of this now almost 50-year-old culture war, much has changed,” he wrote. “Abortion services in this day and age are more readily available than they have ever been, due to advances in technology, telecommunications, and medicine. Given these advances, well-illustrated on the record now before me, it appears that reconfiguring the model for delivery of abortion services has never been easier and that the path forward likely is not as convoluted and insurmountable as plaintiffs insist.”

Nestler disagreed with Walker’s conclusion and said the plaintiff attorneys will work to change his mind as the case continues.

“The decision seems to recognize the importance of these rights, but at the same time conclude that these rights won’t be harmed,” she said.

The government has previously declined to answer questions about the Maine Family Planning lawsuit. A news release announcing the new rule this year said it will “provide needed clarity” for the public and for clinics about what is allowed and not allowed by law.

“The final rule ensures compliance with statutory program integrity provisions governing the program and, in particular, the statutory prohibition on funding programs where abortion is a method of family planning,” the release said.

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