No, It’s All About Birth Control (and a Little About Abortion)

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I really should have warned Jay before she headed into the hornet’s nest that is debate over funding for Planned Parenthood. There’s a lot of heated rhetoric and misinformation and spin surrounding the issue, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the main questions.

Do Federal Funds to Planned Parenthood Cover Abortion Services?

No. Title X funds cover family planning, birth control, and sex education, and are supposed to benefit primarily low-income individuals. They cannot be used for abortion services. That makes no difference to Planned Parenthood’s critics, who argue that giving any funds to an abortion provider has the effect of supporting its ability to provide abortion services.

We’ve dealt with this fungibility argument before, most recently during the health reform debate. And the answer is still the same: if you want a zero-tolerance system in which the tax dollars of pro-life individuals never ever end up directly or indirectly making possible abortion services, then you’ll want to not only de-fund Planned Parenthood but also eliminate tax breaks for employer-sponsored insurance and any number of other potential indirect outlets. This, however, is a specific attack on Planned Parenthood.

Why Single Out Planned Parenthood?

Simple–Planned Parenthood’s national network of clinics makes it the country’s largest abortion provider. The way some critics talk about the organization makes it sound like Big Abortion, driving up abortion rates to make a profit. It’s an odd argument, but one that’s fairly popular in some segments of the pro-life community when discussing the motives of abortion providers.

Sure, there are probably better ways to make money, ways that don’t come with death threats and require body guards. And sure, a medical degree would seem to be a ticket to far less controversial and higher-paid specialties. And yes, abortion rates have fallen sharply over the last 30 years before leveling off recently, so if Planned Parenthood is trying to drive up abortions, it’s doing a pretty poor job of it. Not to mention that dispensing birth control is slightly counter-productive if your goal is to maximize abortions.

If you’re wondering whether cutting Planned Parenthood’s family planning funds won’t just make it more likely that more women will need abortions, thus driving up those abortion service profits, then you’re connecting the dots a little better than Planned Parenthood’s critics have. Title X money accounts for about 30% of Planned Parenthood’s funds. If that funding source is eliminated, Planned Parenthood won’t go out of business–it will just have a harder time helping people responsibly plan parenthood.

Does Planned Parenthood Provide Comprehensive Health Care to Women?

Not really. Planned Parenthood representatives often note that PP clinics are “the main source of health care” for many of their clients. That may be true, but if so, then those women are missing attention to other major areas of their health, from screening for heart disease to general wellness checks. Patients at Planned Parenthood clinics can get tested for STDs, experience family planning counseling that includes obtaining birth control, and undergo manual exams to detect breast cancer. If Planned Parenthood had to cut back its activities, the loss of these services would be serious. But it’s not accurate to imply that PP clinics currently provide a wide range of health care services to women.

Does Planned Parenthood Provide Mammograms?

No. Like the vast majority of ob-gyn offices, Planned Parenthood clinics can give referrals to clinics that specialize in mammography services. But they do not have the equipment on-site to provide mammograms. Conservatives have seized on this recently as proof that Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide the health services it claims to. In fact, while it’s understandable that Planned Parenthood officials have wanted to train a spotlight on the non-reproductive services they offer, the spat over mammograms clouds what should be a clear-cut debate: Is it a good thing to encourage and fund family planning and birth control services?

But even if that would be an interesting debate to have at some other time, it’s astounding to realize that we’re talking about $75 million. For one organization. That may cause the entire U.S. government to shut down. In the annals of great budget standoffs, this has to be the most picayune of all time.