Abortion Bill Has Republicans Heading Off Rails: Jonathan Alter

Do so-called pro-life activists want to posture about abortion or actually reduce the number of aborted fetuses each year? If it’s the latter, they should be trying to expand Planned Parenthood, not kill it.

It’s clear Capitol Hill conservatives now see defunding the organization as a top priority. In the middle of a budget fight, when Americans want action on jobs, Republicans are taking a page from the Democrats in 2009 and going off the rails on health care, pressing an ideological proposal that has been on their agenda for years.

Last month, the House of Representatives approved the Pence Amendment. The bill, sponsored by Indiana Representative Mike Pence, would prevent 830 Planned Parenthood health centers from distributing birth control and offering pregnancy tests, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, breast exams, and cancer screening, among other health services, unless the venerable family-planning organization refuses to discuss abortion as an option. Planned Parenthood doesn’t explicitly advocate abortion, but can help arrange for one if the woman so chooses.

In recent decades it has become a major delivery system for women’s health and contraception, serving more than 2 million women (and some men) a year. Ask an American woman where she first went for birth control and the chances are good she will remember her visit to Planned Parenthood.

$1 Billion

There was a time when Planned Parenthood could survive without federal funds. But today, out of an annual budget of about $1 billion a year, about a third of Planned Parenthood’s support comes from the U.S. government, a third from co-pays and a third from private donations that couldn’t possibly make up the difference.

The Pence Amendment sounds reasonable in budget terms -- everyone has to sacrifice -- but it doesn’t save taxpayers the $360 million it claims. It might even increase the deficit because uninsured women or those on Medicaid would delay going to the doctor until their ailments had worsened and were thus more expensive to treat. And Planned Parenthood is more efficient and is reimbursed less than other providers, which saves the government money.

“For most of these women, who tend to be younger, we’re the only doctor they see,” says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood. Sixty percent of the women who visit Planned Parenthood clinics report seeing no other doctors at all, Richards says. The Pap smears alone have saved tens of thousands of lives over the years. “This is about women’s health more than abortion,” she says.

Stand on Principle

But abortion is the centerpiece of the debate. While funding for abortions constitutes only 3 percent of her budget, Richards says there’s no discussion inside the organization of jettisoning that portion of the operation in the name of maintaining federal funding. With the $500 cost of an abortion beyond the reach of poor women and with abortion clinics closing all over the country under pressure from anti-abortion activists, Planned Parenthood will stand on principle that women should have the full array of legal choices.

The principle for abortion foes also seems simple: that taxpayers shouldn’t see any of their money go for a procedure that they deplore. But the pro-life principle is more complicated than the seemingly predictable furrows of the abortion debate would suggest.

‘Collateral Damage’

We know the U.S. government often funds things that a portion of the public considers immoral. For instance, Predator drones targeting terrorists sometimes kill innocent women and children. Society views this “collateral damage” as tragic, but an acceptable price to pay for eliminating terrorists. Why shouldn’t there be a similar balancing test when it comes to federal financing for Planned Parenthood?

There’s also what I call “The Statistic.” According to the best available studies (from the Guttmacher Institute, named after a former Planned Parenthood chief), the birth control handed out by the organization prevents more than 600,000 unwanted pregnancies a year. Think about that number: At least 600,000 women a year go in for birth-control pills or condoms and end up not getting pregnant. Given that a large percentage would have an abortion if impregnated, it’s fair to say that Planned Parenthood prevents a few hundred thousand abortions a year.

Good news, right? Not for anti-abortion conservatives. They’re against not just abortion, but birth control more broadly. Women’s health issues don’t register with them. But they do with their constituents.

Democrats see the vote on the Pence Amendment as great news for them in 2012. Anyone who voted for it in the House will be depicted as opposing cancer screening for women. With one in five American women having visited a Planned Parenthood clinic at some point, this vote could boomerang badly on Republicans.

The vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with abortion. They welcome programs that lead to fewer of them. As the bill moves to the Senate, this basic logic must prevail.

(Jonathan Alter is a national correspondent for Newsweek and author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The views expressed are his own.)

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