Almost unnoticed in the wars over the federal budget has been a pitched battle over funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides contraception, medical services and abortions at 800 clinics around the country.
For the last several weeks, those on opposite sides of a sharp cultural divide have engaged in dueling rallies, virtual conferences, online petitions and phone banks as crucial congressional votes drew near. At stake is more than $75 million that Planned Parenthood receives to provide family planning to low-income women, money that its opponents say only frees up funds for abortions.
Now, in a surprise step that has set off deep alarm among advocates for women’s health, the newly conservative House of Representatives has proposed cutting the entire $317 million program of aid for family planning, known as Title X, in its 2011 budget resolution, which is expected to pass by the weekend. A proposed amendment to the budget bill would also bar Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal funds for any purpose.
The fight will shift to the Senate, where the Democrats retain a small majority. It is unlikely they will agree to cut all funding for Planned Parenthood, let alone the broader federal aid for contraception that serves five million low-income women, said Susan Cohen, director of governmental affairs for the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization. But more legislation in the House aimed at Planned Parenthood is in the offing, putting the organization in its most precarious political spot in decades.
Planned Parenthood’s role as a major abortion provider has long provoked fierce opposition, but this month its opponents broadened their attacks, seeking to discredit the organization by linking it to the sexual exploitation of minors. A group called Live Action, which has repeatedly taken aim at Planned Parenthood and receives support from conservative foundations, released undercover videotapes in which clinic employees are seen answering questions from a man posing as a sex trafficker. Planned Parenthood says the tapes are misleading, that an errant staff member was fired and that its affiliates reported the encounters to law enforcement.
Seizing on those videotapes, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a Republican and the chief sponsor of a House bill to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, said that the organization had “a pattern of apparent fraud and abuse” and that “the time has come to deny any federal funding to Planned Parenthood.”
In an e-mailed appeal, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, described the House budget and Pence’s proposals as “the most dangerous legislative assault on women’s health in Planned Parenthood’s 95-year history.”
With a total budget of some $1.1 billion, more than a third of which comes from the federal, state and local governments, Planned Parenthood offers family planning, HIV counseling, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, cancer screening and other services as well as abortions, mainly to low-income women.