A War on Women

We are in an economic recession. While some monetary sacrifices for governmental agencies are inevitable, the latest push to deprive Planned Parenthood of all federal funding is not solely motivated by the desire for fiscal conservatism. Instead, the burgeoning campaign against funding for Planned Parenthood is overtly purported to be a means of rectifying an existing ethical dilemma: forcing Americans to finance abortion services through their tax contributions. However, as The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt notes, not a single penny from federal spending originally allocated for Planned Parenthood could have gone toward abortion services since the 1976  passage of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of all federal money for abortions with some rare exceptions. What is even more preposterous about the recent claim that defunding Planned Parenthood is solely about targeting abortion services in this nation is the fact that abortions constitute a mere three percent of the services provided by Planned Parenthood. In fact, the majority of Planned Parenthood’s activities consist of primary health services—treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and so forth. In this way, the No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act, the title of the budget amendment sponsered by Mike Pence, is greatly misleading. This legislation is not merely intended to promote an anti-abortion agenda. Rather, it is part of a greater and more formidable movement to attack women’s health services nationwide.

While on the surface the bill proposed by Congressman Pence is purported to address the issue of excessive government spending, it is in actuality part of a more targeted attack on reproductive health rights within the past several months. In February 2011, Congressman Pence’s budget amendment was passed by the House of Representatives. Government funding makes up approximately one-third of the total annual revenue for Planned Parenthood, as indicated in their 2008-2009 annual report. Subsequently, the elimination of federal funding would undoubtedly take away a huge chunk of available resources for the services provided by Planned Parenthood, such as general health services like diabetes screenings and flu vaccinations, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and specialized women’s health services such as pelvic exams and Pap tests.

Congressman Pence and other supporters of the bill decried giving Planned Parenthood $368.2 million in federal and local funds within the last fiscal year as unethical solely because Planned Parenthood also offers its clients abortion services. However, Congressman Pence and other amendment supporters are assuming erroneously that the organization directly uses its federal funding for abortion services rather than for the myriad of other educational and health services it provides to clients. Furthermore, as Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) argued, since the budget amendment can be viewed as a “bill of attainder” that targets a specific group, it can be deemed unconstitutional since Article I, Section 9 says that “no bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed.” Congressman Nadler asserted that “if Planned Parenthood or anyone else is doing terrible things and ought to be punished, that’s up to the courts” and not a questionable piece of legislation. The fact that Congressman Pence has previously tried to reduce Title X funding for abortion services suggests that his recent amendment is not just a response to the recession. Rather, cloaked in the language of economic necessity, the amendment is a vicious assault on women’s health services.

Yet, Congressman Pence is not the only politician who is striving to take advantage of dire economic conditions to permanently cripple organizations that provide reproductive health services in this country. For instance, Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) originally proposed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, in which he pushed to further restrict the exceptions to the Hyde Amendment for federal funding of abortions— rape and incest. He strived to achieve this by claiming that only victims of incest under the age 18 and women subject to “forcible rape” would be eligible for federal aid in paying for abortions. Requiring evidence of physical harm denies victims of statutory or drug rape any federal funding for abortion services. Steph Sterling, a lawyer and senior adviser to the National Women’s Law Center, declared that “this bill takes us back to a time when just saying ‘no’ wasn’t enough to qualify as rape.” The bill went on to bar the use of tax benefits to fund abortions. Thus, women seeking an abortion would no longer be able to use money from a tax-exempt health savings account (HSA) or have the cost of the abortion deducted as a medical expense. While Congressman Smith was forced to drop the term “forcible rape” from his bill due to heavy criticism, the substantial amount of political support that this bill had acquired raises great alarm.

What is even more disconcerting is that whereas Congressman Pence’s budget amendment had targeted Planned Parenthood,  other Republicans are now proposing to eliminate Title X funding altogether. Title X is the sole source of federal funds exclusively allocated for family planning and reproductive health. It was initially established by President Richard Nixon in 1970, and, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2008, an estimated “5 million women and men received services through 4,500 community-based clinics,” inside such as Planned Parenthood clinics. Nonetheless, many prominent Republican presidential candidates, such as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, have publicly exclaimed that defunding Planned Parenthood will be one of the main components of their respective campaign platforms. The overarching impetus behind the push to defund Planned Parenthood is clearly more a political condemnation of the necessity of women’s health services rather than some sort of economic pragmatism.

Simply put, limiting the availability of reproductive health services for women would serve as an implicit attack on Americans’ claimed right to health care. According to the president of Planned Parenthood, Celine Richards, “the real impact of eliminating the Title X program is that millions of women across the country will lose access to basic primary and preventive health care, such as lifesaving cancer screenings, contraception, STI testing and treatment, and annual exams. In fact, six in ten women who access care from a family planning health center consider it to be their main source of health care.” The danger of limited accessibility to women’s health and other general health services through a cut in funding is analogous to the current situation of Americans on Medicaid, who theoretically have health insurance due to their low incomes but are unable to find any specialist willing to see them.  Budgetary cuts to the Medicaid program induced abysmally low rates of reimbursement jointly provided by the state and federal governments to physicians seeing Medicaid patients.

Increased restrictions on funding for reproductive services would inevitably result in a rise of unwanted pregnancies, and subsequently, compel the government to spend more on welfare programs in the long run. About 65 percent of patients who use the services available at Planned Parenthood clinics are considered to be of a low-income background. Welfare spending currently makes up 29 percent of federal spending, and major areas of welfare programs such as unemployment, housing, and family and children would be indirectly impacted by the existence of more women with children they cannot afford to raise. It is thus not surprising that, according to Planned Parenthood, more than ninety percent of the care its health centers provide is preventative, which includes family planning services. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “every public dollar invested in family planning in Ohio saves taxpayers a minimum of $4.13 in Medicaid costs for prenatal care, delivery and postnatal care associated with an unintended pregnancy.” It is important to stress, however, that the repercussions of defunding Planned Parenthood lie beyond adverse economic effects.

All the recent legislation that involves the issue of federal funding for abortions ultimately affects low-income women who would lose autonomy over their own bodies. This scenario resulted from the failure of the abortion rights movement to pay sufficient attention to the specific plights of women of color or of lowincome. In the 1970s, not only did these women not benefit from the most recent technological advances in birth control, they were even denied equal access to basic reproductive rights, such as the right to an abortion, mainly because of their socioeconomic backgrounds. Consequently, while significant legal strides have indeed been made for reproductive rights in this nation, they have not equally benefited all women due to class or ethnic variances. The recent call for defunding Planned Parenthood, a major source of reproductive health services for low-income women, would exacerbate this problem.

Leaders of the abortion rights campaign appealed to the conception of birth control methods, such as abortion, as emancipatory for women by ignoring the contrasting plight of working-class women of color. The middle-class white women who spearheaded the abortion rights campaign viewed birth control as a means of liberating themselves from the isolating domestic sphere of the housewife. On the other hand, black women did not have the same luxury as the middle-class white women that of viewing jobs as mainly a venue for leaving behind the drudgery of household work. This was evident during the 1950s, when black women made up the highest percentage of married women compelled by dire economic circumstances to seek work outside the household. The 1970s abortion rights campaign merely invoked a privileged entitlement to access to abortion services by pushing for the practice’s legalization—ultimately failing to advocate sufficiently for the right to choose to have an abortion or to ensure that a women could pursue that option regardless of her socioeconomic background. The current push for defunding Planned Parenthood can thus be seen as a consequence of the abortion rights campaign’s failure to adequately convey, by pushing for access to abortion services for anyone in any economic bracket, how the ability to decide to attain an abortion is in itself an indispensable right—a right that will be blatantly denied to women from lower-class backgrounds all over this nation if the defunding efforts prove to be successful.

Even the strides we made through Roe v. Wade have had limited success. The main achievement of that court decision was to forbid the federal government to directly prevent women from obtaining an abortion due to the right to privacy. However, what it failed to do was simultaneously acknowledge that a complete “laissez-faire” approach wasn’t adequate either, as it precluded the acknowledgment of “reproductive freedom” as a fundamental human right in itself, a phrase said to be coined by feminist and pro-choice activist Gloria Steinem. Subsequently, ensuring equal access to abortion, which is also being undermined by recent legislation, was never made a priority as it should have been. Even now, 84 percent of all counties in the United States have no provisions for abortion services, and this percentage increases to a whopping 95 percent for rural counties.

In 1929, a local Planned Parenthood chapter was established in Philadelphia in response to a tragic situation: 15 percent of women in Philadelphia were dying in childbirth solely due to botched abortions. Stripping Planned Parenthood clinics from essential funding today would trigger similar trends in our society. It is time that Americans stand together with Planned Parenthood and rectify the mistakes that women’s rights leaders before us made. A legal right to an abortion should no longer be deemed sufficient. It is imperative that we acknowledge that the ability to choose whether or not to have an abortion regardless of one’s income is an indisputable right of all women in this nation. Nonetheless, a failure to actively resist these legislative efforts would clearly generate a drastic reduction in the financial support of women’s health services in this nation. More importantly, it would also loudly declare that a woman’s state of health is not significant enough to be carefully preserved in the face of some tough economic circumstances.