The XX Factor

The GOP’s Planned Parenthood Demagoguery Is Damaging Health Care Beyond Reproduction

Defund Planned Parenthood, support the Zika virus.

Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

When Republicans threatened to shut down the government in order to deprive Planned Parenthood of its funding this past fall—making demagogic hay out of the false accusation that the women’s health care provider was selling “baby parts”—it wasn’t hard to predict that women’s access to vital services was about to take a blow. Six months later, though, new reporting suggests that the consequences of the GOP’s crusade are reverberating further than anyone could have predicted: It’s not only reproductive health that’s under assault, but also the U.S.’s ability to combat deadly diseases that range from HIV to the Zika virus.

Of course, the people most affected by the attacks on Planned Parenthood remain the low-income and vulnerable women who rely on the women’s health care provider for contraception, breast exams, and other reproductive services—and, in many cases, rely on public funds to pay for it. As an editorial in the New York Times reports this week, Congress’ brinkmanship failed to cut the organization’s funding at a national level, but it succeeded in inspiring 11 states and counting to do so themselves; two more, Arizona and Missouri, are expected to join the list any day now. To get a sense of what’s likely to happen in these states, look no further than Texas, which hacked down Planned Parenthood’s resources in 2011 and where, according to a recent New England Journal of Medicine study, birth rates among low-income women in Texas subsequently went up by 27 percent in three years. This likely has more to do with contraception than abortion: Under the federal Hyde Amendment, the use of Medicaid to access abortion was already banned, except in cases where a pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or endangered a woman’s life.

But unwanted pregnancies aren’t the only repercussion of the GOP’s ongoing politicization of Planned Parenthood. An in-depth piece published Sunday at Politico tracks the way this manufactured controversy over the uses of fetal tissue is seriously impeding scientists’ efforts to combat the Zika crisis. “Basically the only insights we’ve had so far on Zika is with patients who have either lost a pregnancy or had miscarriages,” one frustrated researcher, Patrick Ramsey of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, told Politico. “This is a situation where the vaccine is going to have to protect the mom and protect the baby. Fetal tissue is going to be needed to look at the effects.”

Since last July, when the right wing group the Center for Medical Progress released misleadingly edited videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood selling fetal parts, conservative legislators have taken to banning donations of aborted tissue (as Florida did last week) or even to flat-out prohibiting the tissue’s use for research—as North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Indiana have done, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and as Arizona is poised to do soon.

In a bitter twist, these laws, cooked up to make legislators appear to be dealing with an illusory evil—an imaginary black market where Planned Parenthood gets rich off of fetal limbs—are doing real harm, especially to pregnant women and fetuses. Zika—of which there have so far been 273 confirmed cases in the U.S.—is believed to cause severe birth defects, particularly microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with an abnormally small skull and brain. As University of Wisconsin bioethicist Alta Charo told Politico, anti-abortion lawmakers who get in the way of Zika research may contribute to more women choosing abortion. “Given the uncertainty around the effects of exposure while pregnant, halting fetal tissue research might slow efforts to prevent those effects or at least let women know if chances are high or low of serious birth defects,” she said. “And this in turn might actually lead more women to choose abortions, out of fear of terrible birth outcomes.”

Zika experts aren’t the only scientists who depend on fetal tissue for their work; if conservative lawmakers had politicized this issue sooner, we might not have the vaccines that protect us from rubella, chickenpox, rabies, and hepatitis A. Politico points out that the tissue is also central to the latest research on HIV/AIDS. Planned Parenthood just so happens to be instrumental in the fight against HIV/AIDS in many states, too: The Times editorial cited an ongoing HIV outbreak that has reached epidemic proportions in Indiana, and which began in southeastern Scott County in 2013 when funding cuts forced the Planned Parenthood that was the area’s only HIV testing center to close.

Lawmakers have shown time and again that they’re comfortable overriding doctors and scientists when it comes to women’s reproductive health. But the specious debate over fetal tissue doesn’t just affect women’s ability to self-determine; it carries implications for everyone who depends on modern medicine to cure—or at least contain—the things that ail us. By politicizing abortion, Republicans are once again politicizing science—and that should have everyone concerned.