The Corner

Politics & Policy

Title X: Spin, Error, and Jill Filipovic

As Corner readers probably already know, the Donald Trump administration has a new policy designed to keep federal Title X funds, intended to subsidize family planning, from being misused. The 1970 law that created Title X stipulated that “[n]one of the funds appropriated under this title shall be used in programs where abortion is a method of family planning.” Toward that end, the new regulation mandates that recipients of these funds cannot, among other things, be co-located with abortionists or provide abortion referrals.

The new policy differs from one that the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations attempted to implement, however, in that it allows fund recipients to provide counseling about abortion. That counseling, consistent with the Title X appropriation law, has to be “nondirective.” If a woman states that she has decided to abort her child, the funding recipient may provide her with a list of health providers including some that perform abortions.

When the news that these regulations were coming broke late last week, some media outlets got the difference between them and the Reagan-era regulations right and some got it wrong. As I pointed out at the time, some news outlets linked to stories that explained the distinction and then blithely continued to provide misinformation. (As I post this item, neither Slate nor Reason, which both did this, has corrected the record.)

Hostile commentary about the new policy tended to stress that it allegedly bans even mentioning the word “abortion.” If the new policy simply revived the Reagan rule, that criticism would have some basis. But the actual policy is not vulnerable to that objection.

The latest spin from the abortion lobby is that the Trump policy is still a “gag rule” because it forbids doctors from saying certain things on the federal dime. They can’t, for example, tell a patient who isn’t asking for an abortion referral, “Hey, have you considered calling this phone number to schedule an abortion?” Under any definition of “gag rule” that expansive, one has clearly been written into the law and is not the invention of the Trump administration. (The Clinton administration imposed a requirement that funding recipients make abortion referrals, which was also, by the same token, an attack on doctors’ free-speech rights, one that the Trump administration is ending.)

Jill Filipovic takes a look at this issue and criticizes . . . me, for pointing out mistakes in the commentary on it. In the process she makes new mistakes. Let’s start from the top.

In a first tweet, she claimed that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had said that “the new rule on Title X family planning funding will NOT include the gag rule on counseling for abortion” but that “[t]he actual rule, submitted yesterday, includes the gag.” In a second tweet, she suggested that Sanders may have “straight-up lied” or that the administration had “changed its tune.”

So here we have mistake number one: The actual rule was consistent with what Sanders said. Sanders’s statement from last Friday ended thus: “Contrary to recent media reports, HHS’s proposal does not include the so-called ‘gag rule’ on counseling about abortion that was part of the Reagan Administration’s Title X rule.” That’s right: A ban on abortion counseling was part of the Reagan policy and isn’t part of the Trump policy. Sanders didn’t lie and the administration didn’t change its tune.

Then Filipovic wrote a third tweet: “Conservative commentators like @RameshPonnuru called claims that the rule would include a bar on abortion referrals ‘fake news,’ I assume because they took the word of the press secretary that there would be no gag. Time for a correction?” Mistake number two: I didn’t say what Filipovic says I did. What I called “fake news” was the claim “that Trump is banning health-care providers from so much as mentioning abortion.” Mistake number three: I wasn’t taking Sanders’s word on this point. As it happens, I had neither read her statement at the time nor spoken to her. I had independent knowledge about what the rule would look like, as I had been following the debate over it for weeks. As part of the series of tweets in which I used the phrase “fake news,” I had also cited articles that got the story right.

In a fourth tweet, Filipovic agreed with someone who said that the rule forbids doctors from providing “counsel” unless the patient has decided on abortion. Mistake number four: Non-directive counseling is allowed without that condition; only referrals including abortion providers can’t be made.

A fifth tweet repeated mistake number three.

By a sixth tweet, Filipovic had hardened her position from tweet number two: Now she categorized Sanders’s statement definitively as a “lie.” This false Filipovic claim is based on mistake number one.

In a seventh tweet, Filipovic claimed that the rule requires violating medical ethics since “[h]ealth care providers, by the way, are ethically obligated to tell patients all of their options, in any medical event.” That’s a repetition of mistake number four.

An eighth tweet repeated mistakes one and three. So did a ninth tweet.

A tenth tweet equivocated, trying to blur the line between a ban on counseling and a ban on referrals. Filipovic already had at least a hazy understanding of the distinction, since in the course of this series of tweets she had conceded that reports that the rule simply replicated the Reagan policy turned out to be mistaken.

An eleventh tweet repeated mistakes number one and four.

She then dropped the subject in her tweets, moving on to a discussion of Instagram etiquette.

Filipovic got one thing right in this discussion: It is, indeed, time for a correction, indeed for multiple corrections. But I’m not the one who needs to make them.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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