Attention, Republicans: Next year, when you’re appalled that Democrats would charge you with waging a “war on women” and you’re fretting over the gaping gender gap that threatens to make winning the White House impossible, think back to this moment.
This defunding effort follows on the release of secretly recorded videos taken by anti-abortion activists, in which staffers at Planned Parenthood discuss transferring fetal tissue to what they believed were legitimate medical researchers. While conservatives have tried to allege that the group is “profiting” from the sale of such tissue — which is only done with the consent and cooperation of the women who donate it — the videos actually make clear that the group charges only a small fee to cover their expenses.
But the truth is that anyone who thinks this new defunding push came about because Republicans are so terribly opposed to the sale of fetal tissue for medical research is spectacularly naïve. This is part of a long war against Planned Parenthood that goes back decades.
Let’s be clear about what it means to “defund” Planned Parenthood. While the organization gets some Title X funding for family planning programs, the bulk of the federal funds it receives comes in the form of Medicaid reimbursements for medical services. Those services do not include abortion. By law, federal funds are barred from paying for abortions. So what Republicans want to shut down is things like a poor woman on Medicaid going to a Planned Parenthood clinic to get a gynecological checkup or a mammogram.
Republicans say that it’s not that they want that woman to have no access to those services, it’s just that they want her to go somewhere else to get them. But that’s why efforts to defund Planned Parenthood have failed in court when they’ve been enacted at the state level before: once the government has set up a program like Medicaid, it can’t discriminate among medical providers on political grounds. And this is absolutely political. It’s no more justifiable to say that Medicaid patients can’t go to Planned Parenthood because some members of Congress don’t like the fact that Planned Parenthood also provides abortions than it is to say that Medicaid patients can’t go to doctors who are registered Republicans.
If you watch the debate over this issue, you might notice that Republicans are barely making an argument about the desirability of fetal tissue research, probably because they suspect that’s an argument they’d lose. They could say, “We shouldn’t do fetal tissue research, and any organization that’s involved in it shouldn’t be a place women can go to get medical services.” But they surely remember how the debate about embryonic stem cell research played out; their position on that one was and continues to be opposed by almost two-thirds of Americans.
Or they could say, “Fetal tissue research is fine, but we just need to make sure no one profits from it.” In which case they’d have to argue that there’s actually some evidence that Planned Parenthood is profiting from fetal tissue research. But there isn’t. The only thing they can say is that some Planned Parenthood doctors talked about the details of fetal tissue in a manner that to outsiders sounds cavalier. Which may be true (and ask a doctor you know about how she and her colleagues talk about their patients and their ailments in private), but it isn’t illegal.
So Republicans won’t spend much time on that; they’ll just say that Planned Parenthood is yucky, and they want to cut off their funds. They want to do it so badly, in fact, that some of them would like to shut down the government in order to try (an effort that, like their previous shutdown fights, will almost certainly fail to achieve its policy goal).
So in the end, they probably won’t get the substantive change they want, and they’ll reinforce their public image as a bunch of puritanical old white guys who are sent into paroxysms of rage by the thought of women having any modicum of control over their sexuality and reproductive lives.
It may not be quite as instantaneously dramatic as when one of their candidates starts talking about “legitimate rape,” but this debate sends voters, particularly women voters, the same message. And next year when the GOP presidential candidate is arguing that he really cares about women and their needs, and will be on their side if he becomes president, they shouldn’t be surprised when most of those women reply, “Yeah, right.”