Targeting Planned Parenthood

Earlier this month, the anti-abortion movement took a play out of James O'Keefe's playbook; allegedly, men began showing up at about a dozen Planned Parenthood clinics across the country, claiming to be part of a sex-trafficking operation that involved minors and illegal immigrants. At least one of the men has been tied to the anti-abortion group Live Action, which has long-standing ties to O'Keefe. After five days of this, the nonprofit alerted Attorney General Eric Holder to the possibility of a sex-trafficking operation but, more likely, a smear campaign against it.

The point is to generate a scandal and turn public sentiment against Planned Parenthood in the same way that O'Keefe and his allies, fueled by the conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, brought down the community housing group ACORN in 2009. (In fact, O'Keefe himself had gone after Planned Parenthood before.) But it is just the latest in a series of attacks by anti-abortion advocates who hope to bring down Planned Parenthood, the nation's leading reproductive health-care provider. The organization is a prime target in the fight against reproductive choice. Harassment outside abortion facilities, particularly at larger clinics, increased over the last year.

The real power to do damage, however, lies in a Congress sympathetic to the anti-abortion stance and with the power to cut funding. This Congress promises not only to renew perennial battles but to take the anti-abortion fight to a new level.

This month, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana reintroduced a bill he began introducing in 2007 that would cut off millions of dollars in federal funding to the organization. In 2009 alone the nonprofit received $363 million in government grants and contracts, about a third of its operating budget, through Title X of the 1970 Public Health Service Act. The act provides federal funding for family-planning services so that poor women can get free or affordable reproductive health care, but Pence would amend it to prohibit federal dollars going to any organization that provides abortion in addition to other services. In the new Republican-led House of Representatives, the bill has 122 co-sponsors, making it a legitimate threat.

The aim is to limit abortion, but the loss of funding would actually strike a more vulnerable target. While Planned Parenthood provides the bulk of abortions in the country, abortions remain a small portion of its overall activities. In its 2008-2009 annual report, Planned Parenthood reported that the majority of its resources, 35 percent, went to contraceptive services, followed closely by testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, then cancer screenings. Abortion accounted for a mere 3 percent of total services.

"The Pence bill is a clear attempt to take services like cancer screenings away from women," says Emily Stewart, director of Public Policy for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Thirty-six percent of women who receive services under Title X do so through Planned Parenthood. Millions of women who rely on Planned Parenthood every year for basic services would lose them. And cutting off access to contraception to women is counterproductive to lowering the number of abortions in the country.

Pence's renewed effort to defund Planned Parenthood is not a surprise, but a new effort is pushing anti-abortion tactics even further. For decades, the anti-abortion and pro-choice camps have held an uneasy truce on the issue of government funding and abortion services. Since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has restricted the use of federal funds for abortions by prohibiting coverage of them through Medicaid. Abortion providers have worked around this hurdle, even as Democratic Congresses annually renew the amendment. Now, a scarier bill than Pence's in Congress would effectively eradicate abortion coverage from both government-funded and private insurance plans.

On Jan. 20, anti-abortion crusader Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, introduced the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, the third bill introduced in the new Congress. It would make the Hyde Amendment permanent by imposing across-the-board restrictions on government funding of abortion. (The Hyde Amendment is a prohibition on some federal programs, but it does not touch private insurers or the insurance exchanges that health-care reform will create over the next three years.) Smith's bill would go much further, using tax penalties and disincentives to deter abortion coverage in any health-insurance plan.

Stewart describes the bill as a "truly unprecedented" attempt to deny abortion coverage to women, and one good example of the bill's radical nature is its limitations on abortion coverage for victims of rape. Smith's bill restricts exceptions under Hyde in cases of rape or incest to only "forcible rape," a legally vague term that could deny abortions to victims of statutory or date rape as well as to women who are mentally disabled or were victims of threat or coercion. Worse, Stewart says the bill would remove the requirement that states fund abortion when the life of the mother is at stake.

Despite the recession and Republican leaders' professed concern for bread-and-butter economic issues, the bill is a high priority. Hearings could begin as early as next week, which means it's especially poor timing for Planned Parenthood to be caught up in a smear campaign. (Planned Parenthood is lobbying against the bill.) Live Action -- which has not given an official statement but confirmed to the press that a video project is in the works -- and other groups like them have tried to catch Planned Parenthood staffers doing something "wrong" on video for years. But this effort was different, says Stuart Schear, vice president for communications at Planned Parenthood. It was "a real escalation in their resources and cross-state coordination," Schear says.

That leaves Planned Parenthood, ever the focus of attacks from the right, to maintain a fight on all fronts. At the end of the day, Planned Parenthood has the popularity and resources, including private charitable giving, to weather deep funding cuts from Congress. And down the road, another Congress could undo a Title X-funding ban. But the anti-abortion effort could hurt millions of women who rely on their clinics for basic care.

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