The Baby and the Bathwater

What's behind the Republican assault on Planned Parenthood?

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Illustration by Gerard DuBois for TIME

If we are fated to spend this year weighing the smart ways to cut spending, one useful test will be, What is this debate really about? Prudence? Principle? Or just payback?

You couldn't help wondering, if you had sat in the House gallery late into a Thursday night listening to the debate over an amendment to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood. For pro-life forces, the opportunity was irresistible: for the first time since abortion became legal, more Americans call themselves pro-life than pro-choice, including 29 governors (up from 21 before last fall's midterms). Activists call this the best climate in years for passing pro-life laws.

Their most ambitious target is Planned Parenthood, the country's largest abortion provider. Of its $1.1 billion annual budget, more than a third comes from federal, state and local governments. By law those funds can't be used for abortion, but critics say if you give it any money for any purpose, you are effectively underwriting abortion. "This is not about Planned Parenthood's right to be in the abortion business," argued the amendment's sponsor, Indiana Republican Mike Pence. "Sadly, abortion on demand is legal in America. This is about who pays for it."

No, it's not, countered Democrats, who charged Republicans with pushing a far-right agenda that had nothing to do with deficits. Abortion represents roughly 3% of Planned Parenthood's services, they argued; family planning, immunizations and screening for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases account for 97%. "I am a cancer survivor who is only here because my cancer was found at Stage I," said Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro. "Losing access to screening will cost lives and will kill women in this country." Wisconsin Democrat Gwen Moore recalled getting pregnant at 18, going into labor on New Year's Eve and not having enough money to call an ambulance. Abortion opponents were every bit as fervent. Tennessee Republican Diane Black spoke of working in an emergency room when a 22-year-old woman came in hemorrhaging from an abortion at a Planned Parenthood clinic. New Jersey Republican Chris Smith described a process in which "the doctor goes in with forceps and this device and literally hacks that baby to death."

At that point, California Democrat Jackie Speier threw out her prepared speech. Her stomach was in knots, she said. "That procedure that you just talked about was a procedure that I endured." Seventeen weeks into her pregnancy, the fetus dropped from the uterus into the cervix. "I lost the baby," she said, and the full weight of the tragedy throbbed in her voice. "For you to stand on this floor and to suggest, as you have, that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous."

But that wasn't even her main objection. "To think that we are here tonight debating this issue when the American people are scratching their heads and wondering, 'What does this have to do with me getting a job? What does this have to do with reducing the deficit?' And the answer is, Nothing at all."

That's because the GOP spending bill does not only cut Planned Parenthood; it kills Title X, the 1970 law that provides family planning for nearly 5 million women every year at more than 4,600 health centers. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that for every dollar invested in Title X — specifically for contraceptive care — taxpayers save a little under $4 in Medicaid costs for mother and baby just in the first year. Title X prevents about a million unintended pregnancies annually, of which about half would likely end in abortion.

Consistency is the true test of conviction; anything less is just prejudice dressed up as principle. If pro-life lawmakers kill Title X, they need to accept either the risk of increasing the abortion rate or the cost of growing numbers of children born to poor parents. Their plan also cuts money for prenatal care and slices $750 million for nutrition for mothers and infants. If women can't get screenings and preventive care at Planned Parenthood, they could go to community health clinics — except the GOP plan cuts a billion dollars from those as well.

Maybe abortion opponents should be applauded for standing on principle at great potential cost. But why do it under the guise of cost cutting? Independents who have trended toward the pro-life position may draw the line at efforts that put women's lives at risk. Deficit hawks may be annoyed by measures that are likely to cost more money in the end. And voters who want to see government get something done may wonder about the wisdom of spending days and nights debating amendments that will die in the Senate or on the President's desk.