Waging War on Poor Women

The 2012 Presidential election is already in full swing, with the Republican presidential hopefuls taking great pains to demonstrate their conservative credentials. This includes signing onto pledges produced by small right-wing interest groups and focused on issues like tax reform, same-sex marriage, and abortion.

A conservative organization called The Family Leader, for example, recently unveiled a pledge in which candidates were asked to oppose gay marriage, commit to personal fidelity, and work to strengthen traditional marriage and gender roles in US society. This pledge also included the rather controversial suggestion that black Americans were better off under slavery, which proved to be a little embarrassing for those GOP candidates who had signed the pledge. I bet that folks like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum will read some of these pledge documents a little more closely in the future.

Another organization, the Susan B. Anthony List, produced a pro-life pledge calling upon presidential hopefuls to commit to a pro-life agenda, including appointing pro-life candidates to key government positions like the Supreme Court, ending all federal funding of abortion, and defunding organizations like Planned Parenthood that perform abortions.

Most Republican candidates were quick to sign on to this pledge, with the exception of Mitt Romney and Herman Cain. Mr. Romney released a statement, however, reiterating his strong pro-life beliefs and his personal support for efforts to end funding for Planned Parenthood. Mr. Cain did the same, going so far as to say that Planned Parenthood would be more aptly named “Planned Genocide” because of its efforts to provide family planning services to poor women of color.

Ending funding for Planned Parenthood would be a mistake. Regardless of which side of the political aisle you sit, and regardless of your personal beliefs about abortion, all Americans should be concerned about current attempts at the federal and state level to defund Planned Parenthood.

Yes, the clinics run by the Planned Parenthood Federal of America do provide abortions. And yes, the affiliated Planned Parenthood Action Fund is one of the more vocal lobbies for pro-choice legislation. However, abortion-related activities are only a small component of what Planned Parenthood actually does. If we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood solely because of this, we will be condemning many poor women and men to a life of disease and poverty. That has serious implications for us all.

Planned Parenthood is one of the largest providers of women’s health care nationally, operating over 800 independent non-profit clinics in the US. In many rural, poor or medically-underserved communities, they are the only provider of inexpensive reproductive and sexual health care services for people who lack insurance.

Planned Parenthood provides much more than just abortion. Contrary to the ludicrous claims of Arizona Senator Jon Kyl (a flat-out lie for which he has yet to apologize), abortion accounts for only 3% of the total number of procedures performed Planned Parenthood clinics. In fact, despite being the target of pro-life organizations, these clinics actually account for only a minority of the total number of abortions conducted in the US every year.

The vast majority of Planned Parenthood clinics don’t even provide termination services. Rather, they provide other desperately needed health care services to both men and women. Over a quarter of all American women have accessed medical services through a Planned Parenthood clinic at some point in their lives.

These services include family planning counseling; pregnancy testing and prenatal care; screening for breast, cervical and testicular cancer; testing and treatment for sexually-transmitted diseases; and HIV testing and education. Many clinics even provide basic primary health care for low-income and uninsured patients who otherwise only have access to care through hospital emergency rooms.

If they succeed in defunding Planned Parenthood solely because some of its clinics provide abortions — still a legal medical procedure in the US — short-sighted politicians will be preventing many of the most vulnerable members of our society from obtaining treatment and care.

Although Planned Parenthood would survive even if all federal and state funding were cut off, it would be forced to close a large number of clinics. Without these clinics, we will see higher rates of unwanted pregnancy, untreated sexually-transmitted diseases, and incurable late-stage cervical cancer among poor women. This has serious social and economic implications.

Unless (and maybe even if) Roe v Wade is overturned, the number of abortions is actually likely to go up should too many Planned Parenthood clinics close. Without access to low-cost contraceptives, more poor women will experience unwanted pregnancies and many of these will be terminated.

We will also all pay higher health insurance rates in order to cover the costs incurred these uninsured people end up in the Emergency Room with otherwise preventable diseases or avoidable complications. Finally, the number of people needing public assistance and socials services will swell, pushing already cash-strapped state and local governments to the financial brink.

To put it bluntly, defunding Planned Parenthood is stupid. Americans will pay dearly for what is little more than a cynical attempt by some policymakers to score political points with more socially conservative constituents in order to ensure re-election.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on July 21, 2011. It is also available on the WAMC website .]

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About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
This entry was posted in Health Care, Policy, Reproductive Rights, Women. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Waging War on Poor Women

  1. Sean, thank you for yet another thoughtful piece; I really appreciate your work on these commentaries.

    The term “pro-life” has been co-opted by many to mean something anything but. As you know, I am personally opposed to abortion but I am very quick to add that I judge no one for making that choice. And as a religious person, I would claim no special knowledge of how God might judge; I have a more merciful interpretation of God however.

    To me to be pro-life does not mean to squeeze out but rather to gather in and to do so with great love, charity and compassion. All things that seem miserably absent from some of the groups that you mention.

    It is highly unlikely that you will ever see me rant on about closing PP or changing laws – I am much more concerned about how to transform hearts and minds to find more compassion for one and all. This would include the actually “pro-life” positions of worrying about everything from not enough food or shelter for people, war, unjust laws regarding criminality, the death penalty and the very basic dignity of life. This would also mean not rejecting and marginalizing people who experience love and sexuality in same sex relationships.

    To me, if I were to choose the moniker “pro-life” – which I shy away from – it would be because I want to expand rather than contract. I want life, not suffering, not death.

    For one and all.

    Thank you.

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