By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Obama administration has issued a final rule designed to block states from withholding federal Title X money for Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics, which have been under threat of defunding because they provide abortions among other services.
But many expect the rule to be overturned in 2017 as a Republican-controlled Congress finds new strength with a Republican set to take over the White House.
The new rule, issued on Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is designed to clarify regulations under Title X of the Public Health Service Act and "protect access to family planning services," the department said in a statement.
“This rule will strengthen access to essential services like cancer screenings and contraception for some of the most vulnerable patients in this country,” Dr. Karen Scott, chief medical officer of the HHS, said in a statement.
Scott said public comments prior to finalizing the rule "showed overwhelming support."
Funding for Planned Parenthood has been under fire by anti-abortion activists since mid-2015.
The move was seen as a last-ditch effort by the Obama administration to shore up protections under Title X, which provides funds to nearly 4,000 community-based clinics that serve more than 4 million people each year.
HHS said the rule aimed to address moves by several states to restrict participation by "certain types of providers" for reasons unrelated to their ability to provide family planning services.
The final rule clarifies that entities cannot be barred from participating for reasons other than their ability to provide services.
"The Obama Administration’s rule makes it clear that it is against the law for states to block people from accessing care at a health center because the organization also provides safe, legal abortion," Planned Parenthood said in a statement.
But many expect it to be short lived. President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to defund Planned Parenthood, and at least 14 states have tried to pass legislation or taken administration action to prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving Title X funding.
"The protections are simply not permanent," said Audrey Sandusky, director of advocacy and communications at the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association.
She said because of the limited days left in the current Congressional session, the next Congress could vote by a simple majority to block the rule, and the president-elect is unlikely to veto it.
The leader of an anti-abortion group said she expects rule to be overturned.
"We are not surprised that the Obama administration would do one more favor for Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, before he leaves office," said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee. "However, we also will not be surprised when this rule is overturned by the incoming administration."
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Jilian Mincer in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)