As everyone waits with baited breath to see if there will be a federal government shutdown, few have closely examined one of the bigger sticking points in the budget debate: Funding for Planned Parenthood. In mid-February, the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood by a vote of 240 to 185. Meanwhile, in the upper chamber, forty-one senators have pledged to oppose any spending bill that threatens defund the organization.
The organization is deeply concerned about losing federal funds. Startled by the intensity of the campaign on Capitol Hill to defund its work, Planned Parenthood is fighting back with a series of TV ads branding itself as a women’s health care organization. One ad features a middle-aged white woman who says she is alive today because Planned Parenthood diagnosed her cervical cancer. Contraception? Not even mentioned. Abortion? Nowhere in sight. Instead Planned Parenthoods describes itself as a leader in the fight against cancer and HIV.
Ads like these make an important point: Women have broader health care needs than abortion. But is women’s health care Planned Parenthood’s central identity? For decades Planned Parenthood and its political supporters have asked us to believe that the answer is “yes,” and that what’s good for Planned Parenthood (i.e. government funding) is good for women. Now appears to be an opportune moment to rise above culture war partisanship in order to take a serious look at this assertion.
At the heart of opposition to continued government funding of Planned Parenthood are claims that the organization is extensively and aggressively involved with abortion. These claims are accurate. Planned Parenthood performs more than one out of every four abortions in the United States today. Its abortion revenues – based upon figures from its tax returns, annual reports and website – account for more than one third of all its medical services revenues. In the past decade, increases in government funding of Planned Parenthood have regularly corresponded with its performing increasing numbers of abortions.
Planned Parenthood’s stance on abortion is also fairly characterized as aggressive. A review of every reported lawsuit in which Planned Parenthood has been a party over the last 50 years indicates that they hold legal and cultural opinions on abortion very far removed from what Americans understand to be the “common ground” shared between most pro-life and pro-choice citizens. Planned Parenthood has sued to stop laws securing parents’ involvement in their minor girls’ abortions, laws requiring full informed consent and waiting periods before abortion, laws banning “intact dilation and extraction” (a.k.a. “partial-birth”) abortions, and safety regulations setting time-limits for the use of abortion-inducing drugs. They have also sued to limit the expansion of crisis pregnancy services offering free help to low-income, pregnant women who wish to give birth.
Planned Parenthood officials are even on record attacking the constitutionality of laws banning sex-selection abortion. They also seek to soften or avoid the impact of sex abuse reporting laws applicable to minor girls. In a 1986 lawsuit, Planned Parenthood opposed child abuse reporting law regarding minors under 14 on the grounds of minors’ “constitutional right to privacy,” alongside Planned Parenthood’s claimed duty to preserve patient confidentiality. Presently, Planned Parenthood is fighting a bill in Illinois which would require its staff and volunteers to be mandatory reporters when they suspect the sexual abuse of minors. Planned Parenthood claims that the bill is unnecessary because medical personnel are already obliged to report; they also wanted to spare the relevant government office from reporting “overload.” Interestingly, Planned Parenthood has removed this argument from its own website after various reports about it emerged. Only a “screenshot” of the correspondence preserved by pro-life groups remains searchable by the public.
There is, finally, recent video evidence that employees at more than a few Planned Parenthood clinics are willing to cooperate with sex-traffickers of minor girls. Planned Parenthood has fired one employee caught on tape in a “sting” operation conducted by the pro-life group Live Action, but has not fired others; it has also acknowledged the need for widespread retraining of its employees regarding sex abuse reporting in the wake of this scandal.
Planned Parenthood provides services other than abortion, and there are no doubt well-meaning women and men who sign up to work at Planned Parenthood with the intention to assist women generally; but Planned Parenthood provides precious little primary care to women, including poor women, and the good intentions of some employees cannot alter the corporate giant’s aggressive culture when it comes to abortion One Planned Parenthood clinic director, Abby Johnson, resigned her job in protest over pressure from her corporate superiors to increase her clinic’s abortion revenues, documenting her experience in some detail in the book Unplanned.
During a time when the majority of citizens and lawmakers are wondering how to reduce federal spending, and to maximize its efficiency, every would-be federal grantee has to build its case from the ground up. If the federal government wishes to continue to provide services of the kind it is now paying Planned Parenthood to provide, there are more than a few sound reasons for channeling federal funding to an alternative vendor.
Professor Helen Alvaré is an Associate Professor of Family Law at the George Mason University School of Law.