Don’t Let the Fight Over Contraception Distract Us from Access to Abortion


Late last week, Rachel Maddow asked a very serious question on her program in light of the recent attacks on funding for contraception, STD testing and treatment, and cancer screening: What about abortion?  The main form of the defense of Planned Parenthood and other health care providers that have been under attack has been to point out, until we’re blue in the face, that the funding in question does not go to abortion and that this isn’t about abortion.  I’ve been running myself ragged personally criticizing any media organization that picks up fallacious conservative talking points about “abortion funding”—as the funding in question is not abortion funding, it should not be referred to as abortion funding, full stop.

Still, Rachel is right that in focusing all our attention on contraception access, we may be ceding ground on the equally important right to abortion.  You saw this in the interview she did with Cecile Richards, with Richards elegantly dodging repeated questions about abortion, and speaking only about non-abortion reproductive health care.  That may be the best strategy in winning on the short term goal of protecting the funding for non-abortion care, but as a long term strategy, it absolutely threatens abortion access.

After all, Republicans are claiming, however facetiously, that this is about abortion.  That Planned Parenthood performs abortion is used as an excuse to attack Planned Parenthood’s other services.  Highlighting that abortion is a very small part of Planned Parenthood’s services— about 3% annually—demonstrates the absurdity of the claims being wielded to attack Planned Parenthood.  It makes overwrought anti-choicers like Jon Kyl look like asses.  But the problem is that by attacking contraception, conservatives have made the anti-abortion position seem more reasonable in comparison.

I saw this with my own eyes at Double X, when commenters suggested that we “just” put a wall of separation up between contraception and abortion in order to call the dogs off.  Of course, they seemed not to understand that this wall already exists in terms of funding, nor did they realize that the Republicans were also attempting to cut family planning funding to organizations like the UNFPA that don’t provide abortion at all.  But it was easy to see what the end game in this is, and I think that’s what Rachel Maddow was aiming at—the development of a “centrist” position where Planned Parenthood is forced to stop providing abortion altogether in order to get family planning funding. 

We shouldn’t shrug off this concern. The center has been moved to the right in this country on many issues, and unfortunately this is shored up by the prevalence of Democrats who want to be right in the center, whatever they perceive that to be.  So if the Republicans stake out an extremist anti-contraception stance, then the middle between the conservative and liberal stance is bringing an end to abortion, or at least severely cutting off abortion provision.  It was clear from the way the Pence amendment was written that the hope is that Planned Parenthood will stop performing abortions if they face repeated attacks, and consider that the price that they pay to provide contraception. 

If that seems far-fetched, consider that something like this has already happened.  Abortion provision in D.C. was severely restricted in order to preserve funding for contraception to Planned Parenthood.  Even though the residents of D.C. want abortion to be paid for by Medicaid, Democrats gave this up in exchange for keeping family planning funded.

What would happen if anyone who provided abortion had to be barred from receiving federal funds for providing any other kind of health care?  It would functionally mean the end of abortion services in this country.  Even if only Planned Parenthood is targeted by hostile legislation and is forced to stop providing abortion, that would mean the end of any accessible abortion services in many places where there’s already limited services.  Hundreds of thousands of women go to Planned Parenthood for abortion a year; where would they go without it?  Just the loss of Planned Parenthood alone would put safe, legal abortion so far out of the reach of many women that it would invigorate the black market for abortions again, allowing exploitative criminals like Kermit Gosnell to flourish, flush with new customers. 

But this is about way more than Planned Parenthood.  The Pence amendment barred any federal funds from going to any provider who also provided abortions.  This would put many private providers in between a rock and a hard place of having to choose between their abortion patients and their patients on Medicaid,  Not only would this further reduce the number of doctors able to perform abortion, it would further isolate the ones who do.  Abortion providers are already significantly isolated in the medical community, which makes them easy targets for harassment and terrorism.  Isolating them further would only make the situation worse, and make it even less likely that new doctors would join the field of providing abortions.

I’ve said before that the fight over Planned Parenthood isn’t about abortion, and it’s not—the attack is on contraception services and other services that help people preserve their sexual and reproductive health.  But it’s important to see how anti-choicers, by taking the fight to the field of contraception, are leaving abortion undefended.  This cannot pass.  The loss of access to abortion would be too great a tragedy for our country, both in terms of women’s rights and women’s health.  So while it’s important to sound the alarm about the attack on contraception, we mustn’t neglect abortion, even though that’s a less desirable fight, politically speaking.

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