BY PAT KELLY
Planned Parenthood is an organization people either love or hate. Like many of the other women in my Asheville book club, I’m pro-choice. Yet we were alarmed by the tone of this summer’s shocking Center for Medical Progress videos, which purport to show Planned Parenthood affiliates illegally profiting from selling tissue from aborted fetuses to researchers, among other things.
Alarm, of course, is exactly what the videos were meant to provoke, bolstering a push to defund the nonprofit.
Investigations by various state and federal agencies have found no evidence of wrongdoing on Planned Parenthood’s part; nonetheless, political maneuvering in both houses of Congress continues to wield the threat of shutting down Planned Parenthood.
At the same time, however, those of us who’ve long supported the organization are starting to see some good come out of this ugly mess: public dialogue emphasizing that reproductive health decisions are personal and complex, and that we have a long way to go in preventing unintended pregnancies.
In Western North Carolina and elsewhere, Planned Parenthood provides a wide range of services for both men and women, including birth control, screenings for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, and other forms of preventive care. These services are funded by Medicaid. Abortion services — which account for just 3 percent of the health care the organization provides — are privately funded. That’s because, despite women’s legal right to safe abortions, federal legislation prohibits using federal funds to pay for abortions.
And if Planned Parenthood does close its doors, the people in Asheville and WNC who will be the most hurt are precisely the ones who most need the sex education the organization provides. These are the folks who have the least voice in our community — young and low-income women, women of color, minority women — and they don’t have the same access to reproductive health and abortion services that middle-class and wealthy women have. Without Planned Parenthood, they’ll have a much harder time finding those services, which have helped protect the health of low-income children and families during the economic downturn.
According to NC Child’s 2013 Child Health County Data Card, Buncombe County children have experienced improvement in several key health areas where Planned Parenthood provides services, including insurance coverage, teen pregnancy and even high school graduation rates.
The members of my book club also work, learn and volunteer at MANNA FoodBank, Children First, Communities in Schools and dozens of schools, nonprofit day care centers and churches. They read to kids, coach after-school sports teams, help people navigate insurance forms, teach cooking classes and Bible study. They make space in their rich, full lives and their beautiful and tastefully decorated homes for local teenagers, children, women and families that are struggling. They know firsthand the price women pay when they can’t take care of their children and when they’re facing an unintended pregnancy.
Buncombe County has one of the highest child poverty rates in the U.S. Just imagine how much worse things would be without Planned Parenthood and the many other local agencies and volunteers that are working to keep us from sliding even further down the rankings. In other states, blocking Planned Parenthood funding has increased unplanned pregnancies and other public health problems.
Contraception remains the best anti-abortion, poverty-prevention tool we have. Addressing the situation into which children are born needs to be a key component in our fight against poverty in Asheville and across the country.
One thing both sides on the abortion issue can agree on is that we must improve knowledge and attitudes about preventing unintended pregnancies so women can make better-informed decisions. One approach would be to direct the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Population Affairs to use Title X moneys to pay for educating women — particularly low-income women between the ages of 15 and 30 — about the safety, effectiveness and convenience of long-acting, reversible contraceptives. If the current controversy sparks that kind of action, it could help end the polarized deadlock over measures to improve women’s health.
Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican presidential race, could have distinguished herself in the second GOP debate by standing up for women and offering fair, evidence-based solutions, instead of twisting the issue of women’s health to boost her brand-building ambitions.
Ironically, however, by making reproductive justice an election issue, those videos and their proponents may wind up helping keep the doors open at Planned Parenthood. This will result in fewer abortions, better health care for women and reduced child poverty.