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Story highlights

The Trump administration proposed financially supporting abstinence programs

Lawsuits have been filed to block proposed changes and protect programs

(CNN) —  

Changes to a decades-old federal program that provides birth control and other reproductive health care services to millions of low-income people each year prompted lawsuits that were filed against the Trump administration Wednesday.

The National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, and three Planned Parenthood affiliates are fighting to preserve the Title X Family Planning Program, established in 1970.

The Department of Health and Human Services said it could not comment on pending litigation.

Since the grant program’s beginning, clinics that it supported “have played a critical role in ensuring access to a broad range of family planning and related preventative health services for millions of low-income or uninsured individuals and others,” states the website for the US Department of Health and Human Services.

But the groups behind the lawsuits claim that Health and Human Services’ recently announced funding changes promote abstinence before marriage – for young people and adults alike – and go against the program’s longstanding mission, one that’s had bipartisan support since its inception.

“It’s hard to believe that a federal program that is dedicated to family planning does not mention the [word] ‘contraception’ … even once in a 60-page funding announcement,” said Clare Coleman, president and CEO of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, in a written statement.

The program “was created in response to President Richard Nixon’s proclamation that ‘no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition,’ ” she added. “[We] cannot stand by while the Trump administration advances plans that would damage women’s health and the public health of our nation.”

The contraceptive services offered through health centers that got Title X funding in 2015 prevented 822,300 unintended pregnancies, the Guttmacher Institute reported. The sexual and reproductive health research and policy organization determined that without those centers, “unplanned birth and abortion rates would have been 31% higher, and the rate for women aged 15-19 would have been 44% percent higher.”

Health centers supported by Title X, which will dole out an estimated $260 million to grantees this year, have done much more than provide birth control to those who might not have access otherwise, Coleman said.

The centers also offer preventative health services, including screening and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, detection of cervical and breast cancer and HIV testing. (By law, Coleman clarified, Title X funding cannot be used to pay for abortions.)

Christy Miceli, a 39-year-old small-business owner from Hartford, Wisconsin, can attest to all of this. Thanks to Title X funding, Planned Parenthood became her go-to place for Pap smears, birth control and STD testing starting in high school. And, as a result, Planned Parenthood discovered the cancerous cells on her cervix when she was 24 and saved her life, she said Wednesday.

“Reproductive health care is not a luxury. It is life-saving care that every person should be able to access, no matter how much money they make,” she said. “It is my right to live, and without Planned Parenthood and Title X, I wouldn’t be here.”

In Wisconsin, where more than 70% of counties are experiencing a shortage of health care providers, there are seven counties for which Planned Parenthood is the only option for Title X care, said Tanya Atkinson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, one of the three affiliates to file suit (the others are in Utah and Ohio).

If funding shortfalls force the closure of Title X providers in rural areas or places that serve low-income residents, there may be no other options for some patients, she said.

The lawsuits, filed Wednesday in the federal district court of the District of Columbia, seek to block funding changes that could financially hurt organizations like Planned Parenthood.

They also come on the heels of a letter signed by more than 85 national and state anti-abortion groups and sent Tuesday to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, requesting that the Title X program “disentangle abortion centers from the Title X network” and, in doing so, “be consistent with the President’s pledge and subsequent actions to defund Planned Parenthood and reallocate funding to alternative providers.”

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The letter, the funding adjustment, changes to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, ongoing efforts to reduce birth control benefits and more are all part of a story that’s unfolding under the current administration, according to proponents of keeping Title X intact.

“Yet again, the Trump administration is putting idealogy ahead of the health and well-being of the American people,” said Ruth Harlow, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, in a statement. “This time, they’re undermining a decades-old public health program in order to spread their ideologically driven vision of how people should live their lives.”