A misguided effort by anti-abortion members of Congress to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood would be disastrous for Washington state.
The anti-abortion faction of the U.S. Senate sounded so similar to anti-abortion legislators I once covered as a news reporter in Texas. Both are attacking Planned Parenthood’s support for abortion rights by removing the money its clinics rely on to provide family-planning care. They overlook the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, which already prevents federal dollars from covering abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother.
Texas Republicans picked this awful fight in 2011 and haven’t let up, despite protracted legal battles and a troubling drop in the number of women receiving contraceptive services. Now their allies in Congress — buoyed by the release of videos secretly taped by anti-abortion activists — are playing politics with Medicaid and Title X family-planning money for women nationwide. These programs help low-income patients access a broad range of reproductive services, including birth control and screenings for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases.
Though abortion-rights senators fended off last Monday’s challenge to Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, expect more fights to come.
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Something’s amiss when mostly male politicians are calling the shots on a women’s issue and threatening to take away a person’s right to choose her own health-care provider. These lawmakers cannot seem to accept that for an estimated 2.7 million patients the reproductive caregiver of choice — or perhaps the only option where they live — is Planned Parenthood.
At the risk of losing votes, Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, say they would fund women’s health programs, but only if the money goes to non-Planned Parenthood health-care providers. He and others assume these community clinics could absorb a sudden influx of patients.
That’s not so easy, as Texas learned after its Legislature drastically reduced family-planning funding by two-thirds four years ago, then gradually booted Planned Parenthood clinics from the Medicaid-supported Women’s Health Program (WHP).
The state has since restored some family-planning funding and started its own women’s health program in 2013 that restricts abortion providers and affiliates from participating. Within four years, at least 80 of the state’s family-planning clinics have closed. Between fiscal years 2011 and 2013, thousands of former WHP patients stopped receiving reproductive services. The state reported a 9 percent drop in the total number of enrolled women statewide, including a 40 percent reduction in booming, oil-rich West Texas.
“Texas lawmakers dismantled what existed, and then they replaced it with a system that isn’t working yet,” says graduate researcher Amanda Stevenson of the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
It’s too soon to know the exact effect of funding cuts on birthrates. Still, no one should allow a disastrous policy in Texas to replicate itself at the federal level.
And we certainly don’t want it to trickle down to Washington state, where Planned Parenthood clinics serve 77 percent — or about 61,500 — of the state’s low-income patients who rely on publicly funded family-planning services.
When Public Health — Seattle and King County faced a major budget shortfall last year, it referred patients to clinics run by Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands. The affiliate also took over family-planning services at one of the county’s public-health clinics in White Center, which otherwise would have closed.
Cynthia Harris, the state Department of Health’s family-planning program manager, warns the existing network of health providers could not absorb Planned Parenthood’s patients quickly. The state would have to scramble to find contractors willing to accept low reimbursement rates.
“If people fall through the cracks, remember an unintended pregnancy paid for by Medicaid is going to be thousands of dollars in comparison to a few hundred to supply contraception for a year,” Harris says. That’s in addition to other costs the state incurs when parents are unprepared to raise their own children.
I understand why abortion divides people; other effective family-planning services really shouldn’t.
As we head into the 2016 federal election season, Congress needs to leave the states’ already fragile infrastructure alone. Voters want leaders willing to empower people to become parents when they are ready, instead of advancing policies that have failed women elsewhere, and would only hold back the poorest among us.