HEALTH

NJ Planned Parenthood advocates criticize federal abortion ‘gag rule’

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

A federal rule change scheduled to take effect May 3 could deny reproductive health care to tens of thousands of New Jersey women who depend on Title X to fund New Jersey clinics, including Planned Parenthood.

“I walked the floor at night, just pacing. What am I supposed to do?” asked Lex Thompson.

Thompson remembers being a terrified teenager afraid to tell her religious South Jersey family she might be pregnant.

“Am I going to tell my parents? Who do I tell? Who do I run to? And Planned Parenthood was there for me,” she said.

Thompson says Planned Parenthood confirmed she wasn’t pregnant and offered crucial advice and health care services. It’s why she joined a roundtable of advocates Wednesday who fear the Trump administration’s rule changes could cut New Jersey’s Title X funding — $8.8 million last year. The money pays for reproductive health services at 47 clinics in New Jersey, about half of them run by Planned Parenthood. Critics call it a “gag rule” because it prohibits Title X funding for providers who even refer patients for abortion.

“Patients can’t make fully-informed decisions if they don’t have all the facts,” said Robyn D’Orio, CEO of Central Jersey Family Health Consortium.

“This gag rule is nothing short of unethical. And as a nurse practitioner who took an oath and has ethical responsibility to talk to patients about safe, legal options, I don’t see how we can comply with this. Planned Parenthood can’t take these funds,” said Elizabeth Talmont, vice president of research development for Planned Parenthood of Northern, Central and Southern New Jersey.

That funding covers a long list of reproductive health care services, including breast and cervical cancer screening, testing for STDs and birth control counseling. Last year, Planned Parenthood clinics saw nearly 77,000 New Jersey patients, more than 80 percent of them low-income, and more than half of them people of color.

“What this rule does is it really hurts college students and young people like me right when we’re getting sexually active, right when we’re at the most risk,” said Jada Grisson, a student at The College of New Jersey.

“In particular for women, family planning centers are often their entry into the health care system or their only provider of health care services,” said Deborah Polacek, vice president of the New Jersey Family Planning League.

“Patients are now forced to make uninformed decisions. You’ll have an increase in delayed diagnoses, higher rates of cervical cancer, higher mortality rates. The bottom line: these services are essential,” said Crystal Charley, branch president of the South Burlington NAACP.

When Republican Gov. Chris Christie stripped $7.5 million in state funding for reproductive health care, six New Jersey clinics closed and STD infection rates climbed. Democrat Gov. Phil Murphy restored the money, but federal cuts could bite deep.

New Jersey Right to Life Executive Director Marie Tasy said, “This is a common-sense measure that requires Title X entities, such as Planned Parenthood, who perform and profit from abortions, to maintain physical and financial separation from their family planning services.”

But New Jersey’s joined a multistate lawsuit to block the changes, claiming the reforms are “burdensome and unnecessary,” not evidence-based.

“It’s a direct hit on the access to that type of care, and people in New Jersey and other states will lose access to that care if these regs prevail,” said Linda Schwimmer, president and CEO of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute.

Again, critics of rule changes see a political agenda grounded in the religious right.

“A single religious ideology, and we believe that’s inappropriate. That we all have to have the ability to make our own decisions,” said Phoebe Pollinger, co-chair of the Reproductive Rights Committee for the Nation Council on Jewish Women in Essex County.

“There is an intentionality throughout this administration to take away the rights of everybody that’s not super wealthy, super white, and super male and super straight,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman.

Watson-Coleman says the best way to change the rule is through the power of political protest and at the ballot box.