In Ms. Williams’* health class at a South Central Los Angeles high school, the students were full of questions.
“Where can I get checked out if I don’t have a lot of money?”
“Do those birth control pills my sister bought off the street corner really work?”
“Should I be nervous about the quality of care I’ll receive at the local clinic?”
Ms. Williams’ students reflect the mindset and situation of many Planned Parenthood clients: They understand the importance of “getting checked out”, but are often living in poverty, uninsured, or under-informed about where to obtain health services. And many of them are women and men of color. In 2009, 15 percent of Planned Parenthood clients were black. That’s more than 400,000 people. The number of black patients has been steadily increasing in recent years, with the number of black men visiting Planned Parenthood clinics increasing by a whopping 225 percent over the past 9 years.
Such are the inadvertent casualties of last Friday’s Republican-led attack on Planned Parenthood. In a measure known as the Pence Amendment (named for its sponsor congressman Mike Pence), the organization would be prohibited from receiving federal funds for any of its activities. The Pence Amendment was approved 240-185.
If the resolution is allowed to go into law as is, the nation’s most trusted name in sexual and reproductive health care will lose government support to provide family planning, contraception, lifesaving cancer screenings, annual medical exams, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections to millions of Americans.
Such a budget cut would trickle down to Planned Parenthood’s more than 820 local health centers nationwide and have devastating consequences for people like Ms. Williams’ students, who have few health care options, are predominantly black, and rely on the services of local clinics for access to high-quality and low-cost sexual and reproductive care.
As Ms. Williams sees it, the government is moving in the wrong direction by voting to defund the beloved health care organization. “We don’t need the government to be taking away funding from these clinics; if anything we need to be strengthening and increasing their efforts,” she stated. “Especially in the black community, we need more information and services because there is so much unmet need.”
The “unmet need” Williams refers to is real. According to a recent Hart Research survey, 54 percent of African-American women ages 18-34 have experienced difficulty purchasing birth control and using it consistently because it was too expensive. And African-American women have almost three times the unintended pregnancy rate of white women.
It’s obvious that our community can’t afford to have our services cut back now.
Thankfully, it’s not too late to prevent these devastating cuts from taking effect. The resolution in question will be sent to the Senate for consideration next, where the Democrats still hold a slim majority. Most predict that it’s unlikely to pass.
Of course, we should all breathe a collective sigh of relief if and when the Senate stands up in defense of Planned Parenthood and votes to continue its funding. But in some ways, the GOP campaign against Planned Parenthood has already inflicted damage that can’t be repaired by repealing a measure or restoring a budget.
Measures such as the Pence Amendment do more than threaten one organization’s funding; they also work to stigmatize and defame Planned Parenthood and the crucial services they provide. They manage to “other” reproductive health services by distinguishing them from other kinds of health care, creating a culture of fear and anxiety around things as straightforward and routine as pap smears and cancer screenings. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for women, men, and young people to speak up about their health care needs for fear of facing stigma, discrimination, and judgment. This doesn’t, as you can imagine, do much to promote health and wellness for anyone.
The Pence Amendment not only contributes to this culture of ill health, but it wastes valuable time and energy of our lawmakers. Perhaps most unforgivably, it distracts from what should be the real targets of our government’s legislative efforts: increased health care access, improved education systems, more solid infrastructure, and economic stability and vitality for the American people.
In short, more than an attempt at “fiscal restraint”, the GOP attack on Planned Parenthood was an act of shameful political theater and partisan grandstanding to create further obstacles to already-evasive health services.
It appears likely that the Senate will block the financial threats our Congress so irresponsibly issued last Friday.
Let’s hope, for the more than 5 million women, men, and adolescents worldwide who gain access to health care and education through Planned Parenthood each year, including the young men and women in Ms. Williams’ high school class, that they are able to correct the cultural and political threats as well.
*This name has been changed to protect the subject’s identity