The XX Factor

Target: Planned Parenthood

Can the far right bring down Planned Parenthood-and why do they want to?  There are 154 co-sponsors in the House for a bill denying government funding to any organization that provides abortion services. Congress already prohibits any government money being directed toward abortions except in the case of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, and has since 1976. The $300 million-plus in government funding and contracts Planned Parenthood currently receives goes toward providing family planning and medical assistance to 1.85 million low-income women. As Gail Collins points out in “The Siege of Planned Parenthood ,” there’s no comparable organization in this country offering those services. If Planned Parenthood closes its doors (the clear hope of Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and the 154 colleagues who’ve jumped on his bandwagon), then those women will go without-when for every dollar in public funding spend on family planning services , Medicaid saves $4.02 the next year.

Why do Pence and his brethren support an action that would effectively cost taxpayers some $1.2 billion? It’s not just about abortion. The expanded war on Planned Parenthood is the end result of years of demonizing an organization that once had broad-spectrum political support. (President Nixon signed and supported Title X of the Public Health Service Act, through which Planned Parenthood receives much of that funding.) The change is even more visible on the ground. When I was in high school, the local Planned Parenthood clinic’s ads in our school newspaper were such a nonissue at the time, even though I was on the newspaper staff; I never noticed them until 20 years later, flipping through old papers at a high school reunion.

This might not be startling in some parts of the country, but I went to a public high school in Wichita, Kansas, and  one of my boyfriends’ mothers was arrested for handcuffing herself to Dr. George Tiller’s car. It’s hard to imagine my old high school is accepting those ads today, and some courts have found that high schools are not obligated to run them under the First Amendment. But back then, although the abortion debate was loud in our community, it was largely civil, and Planned Parenthood’s birth control and family planning services were considered to be a separate question. I volunteered with Planned Parenthood and vocally supported abortion rights, but that boyfriend’s mother and I were very good friends. That’s hard to imagine today, too.

But with tiny, incremental steps, the far right has managed to tie all of the services Planned Parenthood offers together in the minds of enough people to get solid support for a bill that could, if it became law (unlikely at the moment), deliver an enormous and possibly lethal blow to Planned Parenthood itself without offering any alternatives. It’s enough to make one suspect that the real target isn’t just abortion providers, but family planning and all reproductive choices. That’s completely out of step with the views of most Americans regardless of political beliefs. Four out of five Republicans and eight in 10 self-identified “pro-lifers” support women’s access to contraception and 86 percent of voters support government health programs that fund state and local family planning agencies that provide that access to low-income women. In many communities, that is Planned Parenthood. But if voters don’t wake up to the implications of Rep. Pence’s bill, not for long.

Correction: February 7, 2011: In the original version of this post, faulty (and too speedy) math had me reporting that de-funding Planned Parenthood would ultimately cost Medicaid $12 million, when the real number is much higher: 1.2 billion. No cost, apparently, is too great.