When the Susan G. Komen foundation ended grants to Planned Parenthood, it sparked a fierce backlash felt even in Nashville. Incensed supporters waltzed into health clinics here and wrote checks on the spot, contributing to the $3 million Planned Parenthood raised nationally in the three days it took the Komen foundation to reverse itself.
“It was like a tidal wave,” said Jeff Teague, CEO of Planned Parenthood in Nashville. “We were just overwhelmed with people calling. They were angry. We had people just out of the blue walk into our health centers and say, ‘I’m furious. Here’s a check.’ It was a huge outpouring of support for Planned Parenthood. It was amazing.”
The moment was hailed in the national media as a watershed event for reproductive rights and women’s health issues as well as the dawning of social media power in this country. But while the reaction on Facebook and Twitter was almost instantaneous to Planned Parenthood’s loss of breast-cancer detection and education money, there has been hardly a tweet of protest as Republicans in states across the country have tried to demonize the nonprofit as an abortion factory and starve it of cash.
The latest example — when the state of Tennessee yanked $150,000 in federal money for HIV and STD prevention programs in January — went unnoticed altogether. It wasn’t until Planned Parenthood sued the Haslam administration this month to restore the money that anyone in the media even knew about it.
Teague offered a quick explanation for this incongruity: STDs lack star quality. “There’s not a national march to eliminate syphilis,” he said.
The need for prevention and education programs is pressing, all the same, and Planned Parenthood contends the administration’s latest defunding will lead to more STD and HIV infections in this state, chiefly among the poor.
Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit contends health commissioner John Dreyzehner broke a federal law barring the denial of government funds to nonprofits for political reasons. Planned Parenthood won the grants in a competitive bidding process last summer when the Bredesen-appointed health commissioner Susan Cooper was still in office. In January, after Dreyzehner took over, the state notified the nonprofit that it was withdrawing the grants and rebidding the contracts.
There was no explanation given at the time, and Dreyzehner has refused to comment on why he did it, claiming he can’t talk about pending litigation. As the lawsuit points out, Tennessee Republicans have made no secret of their goal to defund Planned Parenthood.
Gov. Bill Haslam pressured health departments in Nashville and Memphis to deny more than $1 million in federal money to Planned Parenthood last year.
That money went for health exams, cancer screenings and family planning for low-income women — not for abortions, which are illegal to perform with federal funds. With Planned Parenthood out of the picture, the health departments have tried to perform those services themselves. But in Nashville, Planned Parenthood believes hundreds of women have gone without these services because of long waits for health department clinic appointments.
At the time, state Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, gloated by saying: “We had to kiss a lot of ugly girls at the prom, but we took the pretty one home. ... [W]e got what I was looking for, which was defunding Planned Parenthood.”
After Planned Parenthood filed suit over last month’s second loss of state-issued grants, Tennessee Right to Life president Brian Harris accused the nonprofit of unspecified “abusive and criminal conduct.”
“Having received millions and millions of tax dollars from Tennesseans over the past 40 years, Planned Parenthood is having a tough time adjusting to their new economic reality,” Harris said. “Their latest lawsuit is a desperate attempt to win back what they are losing from private donors and public taxpayers.”
Harris has good reason to crow. His organization started pressuring Dreyzehner from the day of his appointment, making it clear that pro-lifers would demand he do their bidding as the state’s top health officer. In a statement then, Harris castigated Haslam over the appointment because Dreyzehner had attended a family-planning conference last year.
“After a legislative session in which pro-life majorities made clear their desire to bar the use of tax dollars for agencies such as Planned Parenthood, it appears that the governor has invited a fox into the henhouse,” Harris said, calling Dreyzehner an opponent of “even the most basic pro-life protections for unborn children and abortion vulnerable women in our state.”
That there’s no connection between abortions and federal funding for HIV and STD prevention seems lost on Planned Parenthood’s opponents.
Teague argues Planned Parenthood, with decades of experience, is better qualified than any other nonprofit to run the programs and that yanking the contracts will limit patients’ access to these services. That’s at a time when Memphis has the nation’s fifth-highest infection rate for syphilis. Also, the HIV infection rate among 15- to 24-year-olds in this state has doubled in the past five years.
“And they’re playing games with funding that’s going to give young people the skills and information and tools they need to protect themselves,” he said. “That’s just irresponsible.”