Shouting Down Women

How Republicans are using the threat of a shutdown in their war against women.

 U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner. Click image to expand.
Is Boehner’s budget battle about abortion?

What does it say about the state of American political discourse that the government may shut down entirely and the two sides can’t even agree on the sticking point? If the shutdown happens on Friday at midnight, Republicans will go to bed tonight believing that this impasse is over spending cuts: As House Speaker John Boehner said, “There’s only one reason that we do not have an agreement as yet, and that issue is spending.” Democrats, for their part, will go to sleep believing that the shutdown occurred because of abortion. As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put it: “It’s not realistic to shut down the government on a debate dealing with abortion. It’s not fair to the American people. We haven’t solved the issue in 40 years. We’re not going to solve it in the next 38 hours.”

As this fight goes down to the wire, even Republicans appear confused about whether they are holding out over a rider that would defund Planned Parenthood or over some magical dollar amount that needs to be cut from the budget (it amounts to about 0.3 percent of the budget, or as Amanda Marcotte says, “the stuff in the couch cushions.”) Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who spearheaded the move to zero out Planned Parenthood, said on Morning Joe this week that he would certainly shut down the federal government if it meant de-funding “the largest abortion provider in the country.” He seems not to be retreating from that stance as the day ticks on, although some of his colleagues are jumping ship.

As the midnight hour nears, the fabrications continue to trip off the tongues of GOP leadership: Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., repeated on Friday the GOP fiction that abortions are “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.”* (He later issued one of the all-time great clarifications, saying his remark was “not intended to be a factual statement.”) Here is Ezra Klein on the actual breakout of Planned Parenthood numbers: “Abortion services account for about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s activities. That’s less than cancer screening and prevention (16 percent), STD testing for both men and women (35 percent), and contraception (also 35 percent). About 80 percent of Planned Parenthood’s users are over age 20, and 75 percent have incomes below 150 percent of the poverty line. Planned Parenthood itself estimates it prevents more than 620,000 unintended pregnancies each year, and 220,000 abortions.”

For many American women, these are not health services that are readily available elsewhere. This is basic preventive care for the poorest and most vulnerable women in America.

It’s barely worth repeating the other forgotten fact here: Not one penny of taxpayer money goes to funding abortions at Planned Parenthood. That’s illegal already. The GOP argument appears to be that if taxpayers fund cancer screening and preventive medicine, then that just leaves the evildoers at Planned Parenthood with more money of their own to spend on abortions. Taxpayer money spent on any kind of health care for women, it seems, is always a little bit suspect. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., was so enraged by the false connection between federal funding for family planning, known as Title X, and abortion, that she announced today: “Where we will not go is eliminating the health care for women. Make no mistake, this entire debate has involved throwing women and children under the bus.”

The Republicans’ end game here may be to ban abortion in America. (If it is, Joan Walsh explains why the opposite outcome is more likely.) Or it may not be. Maybe it’s to find a way to either punish and demonize low-income women, or to blame them later for the government shutdown. Either way, the whole budget fight has become part of the larger GOP war on women, and either way, itis women who will end up holding the bag when it’s all over. Katha Pollitt is right: Shutting down the federal government over Title X funding has absolutely nothing to do with abortion and everything to do with women. This is about scapegoating yet another group of Americans—along with immigrants, the poor, union members, who else?—for the nation’s financial problems.

Correction, April 11, 2011: This article originally misspelled Jon Kyl’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)