It started with doctored videos and fetal tissue. It could end with hundreds of thousands of women losing access to health care, says the Congressional Budget Office.
Right now, the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015 is making its way through the halls of Congress. This bill is one in a long line of attempts to strip federal funding from an organization that offers family planning and health care from STD screenings to jock itch treatments. The bill still has to pass the Senate and the President, but the House has voted in its favor.
Most recently, people oppose Planned Parenthood because of videos that claim it makes for-profit fetal tissue sales. But that’s not the central issue for most legislators; abortion is. The text of the bill reads that funding will be withheld from the organization for one year “unless they certify that the affiliates and clinics will not perform, and will not provide any funds to any other entity that performs, an abortion during such period.” Some have suggested that ban should become permanent if the organization does not comply.
Here in St. Louis, the Planned Parenthood clinic on Forest Park is one of the few Missouri abortion providers. Anti-abortion protesters flock outside the building. To keep people from the door, protesters pretend to be health care workers and block entrances with their cars. But this tactic isn’t just directed at women who might be getting abortions. A volunteer at Planned Parenthood recalls that she once watched the protesters try to prevent a lone man from entering the parking lot in his car.
This volunteer, Anna Johnson,* has more than a little stake in the organization. As a senior in college, she made a mistake with her birth control. Six weeks later Johnson found herself pregnant.
The path to her abortion was not difficult. She lived near the only abortion clinic she could find in Missouri; she had friends and family who supported her decision. “I wasn’t disadvantaged in any way,” she said. “I realize most people aren’t as lucky as me.” With Planned Parenthood’s financial aid, she and her partner were able to scrounge together enough money to pay for an abortion.
Johnson does not know when you should start considering a fetus a child, but for her, that’s not the most important issue when it comes to defunding Planned Parenthood. Instead, she worries about what family planning and sex would look like with decreased access to birth control and STD screenings.
“It has the potential to hurt a lot of women,” Johnson said. Especially women not as lucky as her. According to the Congressional Budget Office, mostly low income patients would lose access to care.
Rebecca Splain, a member of the health care industry who supports Planned Parenthood’s permanent defunding, says that’s not necessarily the case. “I feel like other clinics would take federal dollars that right now are being given to Planned Parenthood and put them to better use for women,” Splain said.
On the one hand, Splain doesn’t support abortion. But on the other, she also says that abortion isn’t the only reason to defund Planned Parenthood. She points to their 2013-2014 Annual Report, which breaks down the organization’s funds. They are 65 percent medical, 35 percent non-medical; the latter Splain describes as “extraneous.”
This is a claim both made and contested by many. National Public Radio asked Planned Parenthood how they use their federal funding, and the organization’s spokesperson claimed that 75 percent of it comes from Medicaid reimbursement. Meanwhile, in a Congressional Hearing, one legislator targeted Planned Parenthood’s president for her high salary. It’s difficult to quantify all of the financial concerns.
But that doesn’t change the bottom line, which is that people think the money should go to organizations they trust more.
“Too much money is going to Planned Parenthood,” Splain said. “I would rather see that money spread out among all of the clinics all over the country, in rural areas, urban areas, suburban areas, than go to an organization that’s questionable at best—and possibly doing illegal practices at worst.”
The question still remains: would that be enough to make up for Planned Parenthood’s decreased funding?
On the health care end, results are contested. The Charlotte Lozier Institute and Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-abortion research group and Christian non-profit organization, found that there are 20 comprehensive care clinics for every Planned Parenthood, and emphasize that women have other choices. A project by the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion sexual and reproductive health research group, released data that found about 20 percent of Planned Parenthood clinics are the only available safety-net family planning centers in their county (as of 2011).
Both projects involve some statistical twisting, since the anti-abortion project does not consider those clinics’ abilities to reach low-income areas, while the pro-abortion project excludes health care options that do not offer safety-net family planning.
On the financial end, the bill specifies that the funding would be reallocated to other community health centers. But a Congress Budget Office report estimates that if Planned Parenthood were permanently defunded, as many as 25 percent of their current patients could lose access to health care. Even using a more conservative estimate, they calculated that after just a few years, these changes in health care access would cost more than they saved. This is because the report does not expect community health organizations to be able to perform all of Planned Parenthood’s work.
If you scroll through an anti-abortion website like the National Review, you will find dozens of stories from people—men and women—who believe that by allowing abortion, the state provides a quick, cheap solution to a more expensive social problem. They often argue that the state abandons pregnant women, and Planned Parenthood doesn’t help.
All the same, scrolling through Twitter’s #IStandWithPP hashtag, you will also find dozens of stories from people—men and women—who received health care from Planned Parenthood. A common sentiment stated both implicitly and explicitly in many of these Tweets: “They helped me when no one else would.”
Statistics have been framed, reframed, and thrown about. People have said the debate is about abortion; people have said it isn’t. Truth isn’t easy to find in this mess. But the consequences of this national conversation go beyond determining the ethics of abortion.
*Anna Johnson is a pseudonym chosen to protect the privacy and identity of the individual.