Pro-life activists in Tennessee have chalked it up as a great victory: Together with Gov. Bill Haslam and the Republicans running state government, they have succeeded in stripping Planned Parenthood of public funding.
But what have they really accomplished? The $1.1 million in federal money that went to Planned Parenthood did not pay for abortions. Federal funding of abortions is illegal.
Instead, it paid for health exams, cancer screenings and family planning for thousands of low-income women in Nashville and Memphis. Critics say the Planned Parenthood defunding will cause serious disruptions in those services, leading to illnesses, unwanted pregnancies and more abortions.
At the same time, Republicans might suffer politically. After an aggressively conservative legislative session in which they abolished teachers’ collective bargaining rights and invalidated Nashville’s nondiscrimination ordinance, among other hard-line measures, they have given Democrats another opportunity to tar the GOP as extreme — a party willing to sacrifice the health of poor women to pander to the anti-abortion movement.
State Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester calls it “right-wing ideologues cramming their social agenda down the throats of Tennesseans least able to afford it.”
“This is partisan politics at its absolute worst,” he said. “These funds have nothing to do with abortion. They provide very basic medical care for women who are least able to afford it, and now we have women in our community who will not have access to these vital services.”
The governor has tried to cater to social conservatives without upsetting centrist swing voters by appearing insensitive to women’s health needs.
Even while pressuring the Nashville and Memphis health departments to defund Planned Parenthood, he insisted his “primary concern” was to “make certain we keep taking care of the people we take care of.”
Told that health officials fear thousands of women might lose services once Planned Parenthood is denied federal money beginning in July, the governor wouldn’t acknowledge the problem.
“It’s news to me if that’s true,” he said. “Nobody’s told me that.”
Defunding Planned Parenthood is a national crusade for the pro-life movement and a litmus-test issue for Republicans around the country. This year, Republicans pushed congressional budget negotiations to the brink by trying to shut off public money for the organization, and Planned Parenthood funding was targeted in 11 state legislatures.
In Tennessee, social conservatives began clamoring for Haslam to act after a legislative budget amendment to defund Planned Parenthood was secretly negated at the 11th hour of this year’s session. Someone in the Republican leadership must have done it because no one else could have pulled it off. But no one has been willing to confess. That’s how powerful the pro-life movement is in the party. At least one lawmaker was so outraged he called for a TBI investigation to find the culprit.
At Haslam’s urging in the midst of this controversy, state Health Commissioner Susan Cooper pressured the health departments in Memphis and Nashville to accept the federal money that had been going to Planned Parenthood, although officials in both cities warned they couldn’t provide the same services to as many women.
Officials say the federal grant will run out in roughly six months in both Nashville and Memphis, leaving as many as 6,000 women patients to fend for themselves. Planned Parenthood has made up the funding gap in the past out of donations from supporters. In Nashville, that cost Planned Parenthood more than $100,000 last year. In Memphis, it was $500,000. But the health departments in Nashville and Memphis can’t afford to do that. Both are cutting their health budgets to cope with the faltering economy.
The upshot is “more pregnant women and more cases of STDs undiagnosed and untreated, and more cases of uterine cancer undiagnosed,” said Memphis Planned Parenthood president Barry Chase.
“That money is an investment to prevent disease, to prevent unplanned pregnancies, to help women lead a more productive life for themselves and for their families,” he said. “The legislature, when they cut that money away from Planned Parenthood, fundamentally said, ‘We don’t care what happens to you. Women are not important to us.’ That’s what the Republicans said.”
Metro Health Director Bill Paul said he agreed to the defunding of Planned Parenthood because he was afraid that, if he didn’t, the legislature would retaliate by eliminating the federal grant altogether.
“We felt we could preserve the services for Davidson County by taking this on as a health department,” Paul said. “I honestly was quite concerned that the money would go away completely.”
Paul said he hopes nonprofit family planning providers will fill the unmet need. Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, said she worries the health department will have to start turning away women from clinics.
“The only thing Republicans have accomplished is cutting health services to women,” she said. “That’s not anything to be proud of.”
Conservative talk-radio host Steve Gill, who hammered away on the air about this issue after this year’s legislative session, insisted it’s smart politics for Republicans. He claimed Planned Parenthood is using the federal grant to entice women into their clinics for abortions.
“ ‘Republicans are causing poor women to die because they are getting cervical cancer.’ Is that going to be Planned Parenthood’s spin? Absolutely,” Gill said. “Is that going to be amplified by the media? Absolutely. If those two things happen, will it hurt Republicans? Absolutely. But if the truth comes out, then Planned Parenthood will not be welcomed or embraced by the voters.”