I recently posted this article on my Facebook about Republicans attempting to make it easier to defund Planned Parenthood by reversing a last ditch effort by President Obama to protect Planned Parenthood’s status as a provider of Title X services to women. The article notes that Title X is the only source of family planning offered by the federal government and that republicans have long been attacking it as a proxy war against Planned Parenthood.
The reason I’m writing this post it because someone, an old family friend from my hometown, commented on the post by saying:
. . . are you supporting planned Parenthood? If so I am very disappointed 😔 This post looks like you support this baby killing company.
I obviously come from a conservative hometown. What bothers me about the response is actually already ensconced in the original Vox article:
Anti-abortion Republicans sometimes act like abortion is so morally toxic that any money flowing anywhere near it becomes tainted. Title X’s family planning services, it seems, are tainted by Planned Parenthood, because Planned Parenthood is tainted by its abortion care — never mind that this care isn’t paid for by tax dollars.
This obsession with financial “purity” means that contraception and other family planning services get thrown under the bus.
Planned Parenthood performs abortions. The article, however, is dealing with a wonky policy that many people in the pro-choice and pro-life debate do not consider: what about funding for the parts of Planned Parenthood that are separate from the abortion issue? As the article notes:
The Republican Party has been waging war against Planned Parenthood’s public funding for years now, because they object to the fact that Planned Parenthood provides abortions. Even though federal tax dollars don’t pay for Planned Parenthood’s abortion services, Republicans claim that funding other health care services at the organization indirectly helps fund abortion.
In practice, however, defunding Planned Parenthood takes funding away from its mostly low-income patients — who might be forced to seek care elsewhere if the government stopped subsidizing their visits to Planned Parenthood, and who might face delays and worse care elsewhere if other clinics get overbooked from trying to take on Planned Parenthood’s former patients.
Planned Parenthood receives more than $500 million annually from the federal government. That money pays for specific health services — things like birth control, cervical cancer screening, or STI prevention, but not abortion — for people who couldn’t afford them otherwise.
Notice that I am not getting in to the pro-choice or pro-life debate because this has been, in my experience, a fairly fruitless debate because both sides bring their preconceived notions to the debate without room for hearing the other side. The reality that everyone can agree on, however, is that Planned Parenthood does the important work in places like New York City (where I live) of providing birth control, screenings, STI prevention, and condoms for those people who are too poor to afford them.
I know there are those that argue that abstinence is the best form of birth control, but I can tell you that high schoolers in New York City are, by and large, engaged in consensual sexual activities on a regular basis and need birth control. And it is not just my anecdotal evidence that are watching these trends. In 2014, the Atlantic ran a piece describing why Delaware has the highest rates of unintended pregnancy:
. . . among young women in the state who got pregnant without meaning to, the most common reason was not a lack of access to birth control. It was believing that they would not get pregnant. Ruth Lytle-Barnaby, the president of the state’s Planned Parenthood, said she frequently hears local teens say things like, “I didn’t get pregnant the first time, so I didn’t think it was possible.”
Or, if you want a pure statistical point of view, William Slatan argues that:
I’ll say that again: If you define pro-life as preventing abortions, Planned Parenthood is the most effective pro-life organization in the history of the world. No, it doesn’t give teenagers the idea of having sex. That idea comes to them quite naturally, thank you very much. What Planned Parenthood does, more comprehensively than anyone else, is to distribute the means and knowledge to control your risk of getting pregnant when you don’t want to be pregnant. And those two things, combined with pressure to exercise that control assiduously, are the surest way to prevent abortions . If you wait till women are already unhappily pregnant, you’re too late.
If you think Planned Parenthood is sufficiently funded, fine. Write your check or award your grant to some other, smaller organization that does similar work. But don’t imagine that defunding birth control will buy you fewer abortions. It will buy you more.
In another article for Slate, Williams Slatan makes the interesting point that:
“The more young people have their questions answered openly about contraception, relationships, and sexual health, the more likely they are to delay sexual activity,” Richards wrote last year. “And when they do become sexually active, whether in their teen years, or optimally, later on, the more likely they are to have safer sex and use contraceptives correctly.” Optimally, later on. That’s not a recommendation to delay pregnancy. It’s a recommendation to delay sex.
I’m quoting all of these articles because it is important to see that the debate over abortion can and should be separated from the debate about defunding Planned Parenthood and birth control. Federal law already prohibits Planned Parenthood from taking money from the federal government to perform abortions, but people need safe, affordable, nearby places to go for birth control and honest answers about sex. I have seen firsthand Planned Parenthood in the classroom frankly answering student questions about sex. And the students have a lot of them. Planned Parenthood, contrary to popular belief, does not advocate for abortions during this time period. They focus on access to birth control and frankly discussing the dangers and seriousness of sex with students (who often have no other adults who will discuss it frankly with them). They encourage teenagers to wait until they are ready and teach important skills about consent during sex.
Beyond the debate over Planned Parenthood, however, I think that we can all agree that all human life should be protected. The problem with the typical pro-life argument is that the moralizing about protecting babies stops at birth. Once the baby is born, I often hear conservatives complain about “them” and “their tax dollars” paying for “welfare for single mothers” who “already made their choice.” Such an argument is literally incompatible with their earlier qualms about protecting the fetus at all costs. Either we care for and want this baby to be born and loved in this world or we do not. This does not stop at the vaginal canal.
If we want to be a people who truly cares for all human life, we must be equally incensed by children who don’t have access to basic health care and for parents who can’t afford to feed their small children. We need to care about affordable child care so that these mothers can go back to work to support their families or provide a meaningful safety net if they do not go back to work.
We need to care about inequitable schools where white children are privileged over black and brown children in terms of access to high quality classes, graduation rates, test scores, sports teams, and a variety of other objective metrics.
We need to care about making sure that once these children graduate from high school, that they have access to jobs or some other way of making their way in the world. We need to care about the homeless and make sure that they do not die on the streets.
Pro-life, if it is to be a coherent movement, needs to be about more than a woman getting pregnant and keeping the baby. We must also stop treating the argument as a two-sided coin. There is not just pro-choice and pro-life. There is the issue of birth control and how that might lower the need for abortions. There needs to be a discussion about how access to quality health care might lower the amount of babies born with serious health conditions.
Focusing on abortion alone will get us nowhere fast. Instead, I suggest data-based research projects that both sides can contribute to as a means of lowering the abortion rate (which is what both sides want). As of now, both sides work on partisan lines toward the same goal: lowering the abortion rate. If we could just see all that we have in common, we might come together and stop the obstructionism that so often leads to deadlock when we need united leadership. There is nothing written in America’s constitution that push forth a two party system that must be locked in partisan bullhorns. We can come through this, but first both sides must be willing to see the light.