During these politically divisive times, it seems that every social issue is becoming more and more politicized. Right or left-leaning factions will assume control over one side of a debate, and suddenly what used to be a public health concern becomes a heated political dispute. One such debate that has been recently drawn into the public eye questions the notion of using taxpayer dollars to fund abortions when, as of 2017, 46% of American citizens would consider themselves ‘pro-life.’[1]

This debate has produced the rallying cry to “Defund Planned Parenthood” among some Americans who oppose this use of federal funds. The movement is spearheaded by an organization known as Protest PP and funded by various pro-life institutions. The impetus for the movement was a 2015 controversy surrounding video tapes that allegedly showed a Planned Parenthood doctor bragging about selling fetal tissue for a profit without the mother’s consent or knowledge. However, further investigation showed that the video had been heavily doctored. In fact, only two Planned Parenthood-affiliated organizations give fetal tissue for research and only with the mother’s consent.[2]

Abortion is listed as the first problem on Protest PP’s “four key reasons” that government should halt funding to the organization.

Protest PP has since shifted their focus to the actual abortions that Planned Parenthood carries out. They claim that abortions should not be allowed to be covered by government insurance because of their controversial political implications in public life. Abortion is listed as the first problem on Protest PP’s “four key reasons” that government should halt funding to the organization, illustrating that their primary concern with Planned Parenthood is its refusal to stop providing abortion services.[3]

However, to truly understand the problem, one must remove “Defund Planned Parenthood” from its political background and simply view it as the public health issue that it is. When examining Protest PP separately from its right-leaning goals, its complaint with government funding of Planned Parenthood immediately loses its impact in light of how this funding operates in practice. Namely, that under federal law, federal tax dollars cannot be used to pay for abortions except in the rare cases of rape, incest, and life-threatening pregnancies for the mother. In 1977, the Hyde Amendment was introduced in Congress and effectively banned the use of federal funds to pay for abortion coverage under insurance with the aforementioned three exceptions. States can individually choose to use their own funding to cover any medically necessary abortions through Medicaid but currently only 17 states do so, four states voluntarily and 13 pursuant to a court order. The other 32 states plus D.C. follow the federal guidelines and only provide coverage in the three specified cases. In fact, in these latter states, there are even some special cases where there is even more restriction on the use of state funds. For instance, in Iowa, the governor has to approve every one of these exceptions, and in South Dakota, which is in violation of federal law, the state will only cover abortions if the mother’s life is fatally threatened.[4]

A closer look at the court orders in the 17 states that provide for medically-necessary abortions could be helpful here. If these state governments chose to require Medicaid funding, then perhaps a similar argument could be made on the federal level. In 1982, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that, in addition to the three specified cases, Medicaid must also fund any medically necessary abortions. The argument here was that under the equal protection guarantee in the State Constitution, one cannot distinguish between a mother’s right to life and a right to health. However, even in this case, the funding only goes towards abortions that present a health risk to the mother or the child. Widespread abortion coverage is still only present in three states: California, New York, and Oregon. In fact, 11 states even go so far as to prevent private insurance companies from offering packages that cover abortions outside of the three exceptions.[5]

Regardless of variation across states, the end result is the same: federal government insurance does not cover medically-unnecessary abortions except in the cases of those three left-leaning states. The simple fact is that the reasoning used to support defunding Planned Parenthood has no basis in real practices because the federal government is simply not funding Planned Parenthood abortions. In answer to this, Protest PP claims that although the money is being not used directly for abortions, it still upholds Planned Parenthood institutions, which in turn provide abortions. As stated on their website, “Even if Planned Parenthood does not receive federal funding directly for abortion, the $430 million they receive from the federal government helps them to keep the lights on, staff their call centers, and market their business.”[6]

The reasoning used to support defunding Planned Parenthood has no basis in real practices because the federal government is simply not funding Planned Parenthood abortions.

Although the money may keep Planned Parenthood running, most of their services do not involve abortions. Although the claim that only 3% of their services are abortion-related has been contested and the actual statistics are unknown, abortions seem to account for 20% of their services.[7] Among the other 80%, Planned Parenthood provides cancer screenings, birth control, and STD testing/treatment, most of which would be classified as basic women’s healthcare.[8] This being said, the question remains: does funding one part of an organization mean that Americans have to condone every part of that organization? And, if not, what rights do Americans have to dictate precisely where their tax dollars go?

Currently, the American public remains divided on the issue. A Politico-Harvard poll taken during the 2016 election found that a small majority (58%) of voters wanted Planned Parenthood to be government-funded. On the other hand, 58% of respondents did not want Medicaid (government insurance) to be used to fund abortion services.[9] Without agreement between the American general public, the ultimate decision of funding Planned Parenthood cannot be based on public opinion alone, which raises the question: how much weight should public opinion even carry? Whether or not the American public condones abortions, 78% of Planned Parenthood patients are at or below 150% of the federal poverty line. Annually, the organization serves 2.6 million young people in the U.S. by providing access to healthcare and sex education. Fifty-nine Planned Parenthood locations across the country in addition to over 700 affiliated clinics provide an affordable alternative for those lacking in basic healthcare coverage. [10] With this in mind, by funding Planned Parenthood, the government is achieving its end goal of providing healthcare to its citizens. The ethical concerns over abortion should not even enter into the equation simply because it’s one of the services that Planned Parenthood chooses to provide in its efforts to grant full access to care. Abortion is a personal choice and but one of many critical health interventions provided by Planned Parenthood; it should not prevent sufficient funding to maintain the other essential services provided by the organization to the nation’s poorest.

 

References:

[1] “United States – pro-Choice and pro-Life Supporters in 2017 | Survey.” Statista, www.statista.com/statistics/225975/share-of-americans-who-are-pro-life-or-pro-choice/.

[2] “Letter to Congressional Leadership” Planned Parenthood, https://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/8314/4709/3497/PPFA_Letter_to_Congressional_Leadership.pdf.

[3] “Why Defund Planned Parenthood?” ProtestPP, protestpp.com/about/.

[4] “State Funding of Abortion Under Medicaid.” Guttmacher Institute, 1 Nov. 2017, www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/state-funding-abortion-under-medicaid.

[5] “State Laws Regulating Insurance Coverage of Abortion Have Serious Consequences for Women’s Equality, Health, and Economic Stability.” NWLC, nwlc.org/resources/state-bans-insurance-coverage-abortion-endanger-women%E2%80%99s-health-and-take-health-benefits-away-women/.

[6] “Why Defund Planned Parenthood?” ProtestPP, protestpp.com/about/.

[7] Lee, Michelle Ye Hee. “For Planned Parenthood Abortion Stats, ‘3 Percent’ and ’94 Percent’ Are Both Misleading.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 Aug. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/08/12/for-planned-parenthood-abortion-stats-3-percent-and-94-percent-are-both-misleading/?utm_term=.7e18b2c67691.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “The 2016 Election: Clinton vs. Trump voters on American Healthcare.” Politico. http://www.politico.com/f/?id=00000158-039b-d881-adda-77db04b70000.

[10] “Planned Parenthood by the Numbers.” Planned Parenthood. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/3314/3638/1447/PP_Numbers.pdf.