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What Defunding Planned Parenthood Is Really About

The war on women is being fought under false pretenses

The black infant mortality rate in Cleveland, Ohio, is nothing less than a crisis. Twenty of every 1,000 black babies in my hometown didn't live to see their first birthdays in 2015; on the whole, the Ohio rate is better, but still worse than the national average. Which isn't that good, either. The estimated overall U.S. rate for all infant deaths is 5.8 per 1,000 — and even that is unacceptable. Dozens of nations do better.

You'd think that the 485-page final report from a congressional body calling itself the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives would contain at least a mention of infant mortality. No such luck. That investigation, which took 15 months and cost $1.59 million, instead focused on trying to prove that Planned Parenthood has been selling mutilated parts of aborted embryos. The panel failed, finding no evidence that the reproductive health care provider profited off of fetal tissue. Nor, it seems, did the panel investigate how to protect the lives of actual infants. Instead, it suggested a series of harsh recommendations for clamping down on abortion rights. One was yet another demand to cut off Planned Parenthood's federal funding.

Two days after the panel's report dropped, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that a provision to that effect would be included in the Republican measure to repeal Obamacare. “Planned Parenthood legislation would be in our reconciliation bill” was all Ryan said, but that's foreboding enough. The GOP plans to use the Senate's special budget rules, which means the repeal — and the defunding — would need only 51 votes to pass. If it does, this time it'll land on the desk of President Trump, for whom defunding was a consistent campaign promise.

All of this seems strangely urgent, especially since the federal government doesn't fund abortions in the first place, except in the case of rape or incest. It hasn't since the Hyde Amendment was first put into effect three years after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. When he was president, Bill Clinton loosened Hyde a bit to allow for the rape-or-incest exception, but both major parties have been comfortable with that status quo for more than 40 years — until this year, when the Democratic Party added a rebuke of Hyde to its platform. The hopes of repealing the amendment went away with Trump's election. So why, if Hyde isn't going anywhere, are Republicans pursuing this defunding now?

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It's good conservative politics, apparently, to promote the fiction that Planned Parenthood endangers lives instead of saving them, and that the government can stop that from happening. The defunding of abortion providers has been useful to Republican lawmakers as a signal of authenticity to their conservative voters since at least 1979, but it hasn't been an effective legislative tactic. States have had considerably more success restricting access to reproductive health services during the Obama administration by imposing a flood of medically unnecessary laws that don't prohibit abortion but often force clinics to close. Even then, judges have tossed out many of the new laws for being unconstitutional. President Obama has a new rule preventing state defunding of Planned Parenthood that will go into effect two days before inauguration. Whether or not it stands under Trump, it's welcome. Ideally, it would apply nationally.

Incoming Vice-President Mike Pence nearly shut down the federal government in 2011 by attaching a provision prohibiting Planned Parenthood funding to a spending bill. Two years later, Rick Perry, then the governor of Texas, was so determined to steer money away from Planned Parenthood that he ended up costing his state $200 million in Medicaid funds. These men (and it's mostly men) have wasted valuable tax dollars and further endangered their constituents by engaging in a misogynist and wasteful campaign. Like a certain military conflict Republicans led us into, this war against women's health care is being waged under false pretenses.

Abortion is legal, and it is health care. Patients who seek this legal procedure need places like Planned Parenthood to make sure it is done safely. What's more, abortions make up only a small fraction of the services these clinics provide. "Two and a half million women, men and young people come through our doors every year for lifesaving care like cancer screenings, birth control, and STI and STD tests," Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Cecile Richards said in a statement after Ryan's remarks.

The vast majority of Americans support either limited or full abortion legality (if not full access to providers), but demonizing it has been a remarkably successful survival tactic for politicians. Those who represent a deeply red state or gerrymandered district, safe in their seats, can feel especially free to treat abortion like some kind of modern-day holocaust instead of what it actually is. And it works. It lets them appear to their voters as if they're crusaders against evil.

"We're going to make it more difficult for women to get health care, and we'll possibly endanger their lives" probably wouldn't entice a lot of voters. Even in this political climate, "Crippling a health provider that primarily benefits women of color" probably wouldn't fly, either. "We're going to act like defunding would ban abortion," though? Now, that's a lie they can sell. That gives the people something to hate, even if that hate is based on no logic or scientific fact. It hasn't been that long since Robert Dear's deadly terrorist attack on a Colorado Springs branch of Planned Parenthood, and that's just one reason why it is reckless to treat the provider like some great abomination. With the possible exceptions of taxes or race, Republicans are never so cynical as when they portray reproductive choice as wicked.

Abortion remains the American wedge issue, and in the process, patients and doctors have become political targets. But Ryan may be risking the entire Obamacare repeal if he insists on pursuing the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Republican senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins are pro-choice, and along with Rand Paul, who opposes the repeal on fiscal grounds, they may keep their comrades short of the 51 votes they'll need.

By announcing the defunding now, Ryan and his party show that they're not too worried about providing a better alternative to Obamacare, or even protecting actual infant lives. If they were, they'd be proposing new bills aimed at lowering infant mortality. Perhaps they'll leave that to states like Ohio, where Governor John Kasich recently signed such a law. (Of course, Kasich is no pro-choice hero to be championed by the left. Even he had his Planned Parenthood defunding rejected by the courts.)

Forcing women to carry unwanted fetuses to term isn't in the Constitution. The Bible doesn't teach us Christians that life begins at conception. That's an invention of man, so Republicans shouldn't act like they're performing some holy duty by starving some abortion providers of necessary funding. Their real accomplishment, if they succeed, will be to increase the likelihood that someone will get sick with an untested sexually transmitted disease, or will be unable to have their cancer detected, or won't have access to any number of other health care services. And for those who do want an abortion, limiting their options for safe and legal procedures just means more dangerous self-administered ones. If you're one of the millions who need Planned Parenthood, the party that tells us they're all about protecting life is being awfully cavalier with yours.