Controversial executive orders have been a hallmark of Donald Trump’s young presidency, but it’s worth noting that there is one that he has so far refrained from issuing. During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would “defund” -- that is, stop providing federal funding to -- Planned Parenthood. He can advance that goal by executive order if he wants.
The federal government does not generally pay for abortions. But the government is the largest source of funds for Planned Parenthood, which performs more abortions than any other organization in the U.S. The second fact has made opponents of abortion want to change the first fact.
In recent years, they have sought legislation to accomplish this goal. But the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush believed that existing legislation allowed the executive branch to cut off a significant portion of that funding, and their arguments held up in court.
Those Republican administrations relied on a legal provision saying that federal family-planning programs should not “be used in programs where abortion is a method of family planning." On the authority of that provision they issued regulations saying that recipients of family-planning funds could not counsel abortion or make abortion referrals, and had to use separate finances and locations for providing abortions. The Supreme Court upheld the regulations in Rust v. Sullivan.
The Clinton administration rescinded the regulations, and the George W. Bush administration did not reinstate them. During the Obama administration, opponents of Planned Parenthood funding sought legislation to cut it off. Their tactic made sense given the liberalism of the administration. Executive action gradually fell off the agenda, and even many anti-abortion activists are unaware of the Reagan-Bush history.
During the presidential primaries, though, Jeb Bush proposed reinstating the old regulations. If President Trump went that route, he would have one more controversy on his hands, and he may feel that he has enough already. He may feel, as well, that he is doing enough to satisfy abortion opponents.
But those opponents may nevertheless ask him: If you oppose federal funding for Planned Parenthood and you have the power to do something about it, why don’t you?
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