Sweeney: State should replace money lost under Trump ‘gag’ rule on abortion

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

State Senate President Steve Sweeney wants New Jersey to replace millions in federal funding for family planning in New Jersey, including money Planned Parenthood lost when it balked at a demand by the Trump administration that it no longer counsel women about abortion services.

“I’m here to commit to you today — on behalf of the Senate — that we will get this done,” the Gloucester County Democrat said at a news conference in Trenton. He said he wants to call the legislature into session in September to act on the corresponding legislation.

Planned Parenthood’s New Jersey clinics were due to share deeply in the $8.3 million that goes to groups in New Jersey for family planning and other health services under the federal Title X program. But the organization is refusing to abide by the Trump Administration’s so-called “gag rule,” which forbids any healthcare center that accepts the funding to refer or even counsel patients on abortion. Federal rules already prohibit the money from being spent on abortions themselves.

“Planned Parenthood won’t withhold critical information from our patients,” said Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, legislative and political director for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of NJ. “And that’s why we’re saying no. Patients come to Planned Parenthood because they expect the best medical information and healthcare available. And we have a commitment to give it to them.”

“They’re standing on principal, and they’re standing because they’re right,” Sweeney said. “Denying information to people to make choices in healthcare is not acceptable. So … we’re going to have to come up with additional funding.”

The official grantee for the state’s Title X allocation is the NJ Family Planning League, and the organization has decided to accept the money, not because it disagrees with Planned Parenthood’s stance but because of the potential impact of rejecting the money on other groups in the state.

“We have decided to continue as a Title X grantee at this time, and not forfeit the $8.3 million we were awarded,” the group said in an emailed statement“We acknowledge that some providers may no longer be able to remain in the Title X program. For other providers, the loss of Title X funding would mean closing their doors.”

For now, 24 other providers in the state will take Title X money and comply with the gag rule, the League says. Meanwhile, the League says it hopes Planned Parenthood prevails in a lawsuit challenging the rule.

“They’ve really got to take a look at — not only Planned Parenthood — but what other providers may be negatively impacted here, and to really get the real costs that are going to be missed as a result of this issue,” said U.S. Rep. Bonnie Coleman Watson, the Democrat who represents the state’s 12th Congressional District and was in Trenton with Sweeney.

Planned Parenthood served more than 57,000 men and women last year — 70 percent of the patients in New Jersey who received services under Title X. Nearly two thirds were people of color. The group’s two New Jersey affiliates are self-funding their 22 clinics right now.

Gov. Phil Murphy last year restored an allocation of more than $7.5 million in state family planning money that former Gov. Christie had line-itemed out of previous state budgets.

When asked about Sweeney’s proposal Wednesday, the governor’s office said: “We are working with partners in government and with providers, including the New Jersey Family Planning League and both Planned Parenthood Affiliates that operate in New Jersey, to assess the need of the program and how the state might step in.”

Sweeney said he’ll ask Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin to convene his house in early September. He said he didn’t expect that to be a problem, even though all Assembly seats are at stake in November.

“I can’t see how the Assembly, the Senate and the Governor can’t get together and stand up and do the right thing for the people of this state — that really need this healthcare,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney said he feels that people who need health services have been swept up in political chaos.

“You have a president that just looks to attack on anything and everything at all times,” he said. “It’s like, we think he wakes up in the morning, ‘What can I do to disrupt more people’s lives?’ And this came out of left field. But I feel strongly as the Senate President that we cannot fail the communities that rely on health care.”