Planned Parenthood battle signals fresh twist in abortion wars

An unprecedented number of states are targeting funding for abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood. The farthest-reaching effort, in Indiana, is facing a legal challenge.

By , Staff writer

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    Betty Cockrum (l.), president of Planned Parenthood of Indiana, and attorney Ken Faulk, standing outside the federal courthouse in Indianapolis Monday, discuss a hearing in federal court where the group is seeking an injunction against a law ending most of their state funding.
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The campaign against Planned Parenthood from Congress to Kansas is part of the broadest legislative attack against funding for abortion services since abortion became legal in 1973, say activists.

Antiabortion legislation in Congress and the states is nothing new. But 11 states this year have targeted the funding of organizations that perform abortions, most notably Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider.

While some suggest that providers should consider radical measures to ease the political pressure – such as separating abortion services from their other health-care programs – Planned Parenthood is taking the matter to court. What happens in an Indiana courtroom, where Planned Parenthood is challenging the strictest funding ban, could determine whether the trend gains momentum or comes to a halt.

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“We’ve never seen this number of attacks [on abortion providers’ funding] in one year,” says Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate with the Guttmacher Institute in Washington, which advocates affordable reproductive health care. “Usually, it’s a couple of states. This is very different.”

The effort to attack Planned Parenthood’s financing received a major boost earlier this year, with the launching of Expose Planned Parenthood – a coalition of antiabortion groups that alleged Planned Parenthood colluded in the sexual exploitation of minors. One of the groups in the campaign released “sting” videos that it said provided evidence of this collusion.

The coalition called for Planned Parenthood's defunding by Congress. House Republicans responded by pushing to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood in the 2011 budget, though they eventually failed.

Since then, states have picked up the torch. The 11 states that have introduced measures this year either to ban groups like Planned Parenthood from receiving family-planning funding or prevent them from contracting with the state include: Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Among these, Indiana’s law, which has already been signed, is the farthest reaching and most closely watched. It prohibits the state from contracting with any family planning agency that provides abortions. Federal officials have said the law runs afoul of Medicaid guidelines, and Planned Parenthood is currently challenging it in court.

Split Planned Parenthood in two?

Indiana lawmakers have suggested that Planned Parenthood could remove itself from their scrutiny by establishing a separate corporate organization for its abortion services, which would make the other health-related services it provides still eligible for Medicaid funding.

But Planned Parenthood officials note that federal law already precludes the use of federal money for abortions, making such a reorganization moot. Moreover, Betty Cockrum, president of the Indiana chapter of Planned Parenthood, says she suspects that the fight to block funding for her organization would continue regardless.

“Setting up a different organization is not going to satisfy these people who are so clear that they want to convince people that there is public funding for abortions when, in fact, there is not,” Ms. Cockrum says. “It sure feels like it would be a move on quicksand.”

Restructuring poses other difficulties, especially for small nonprofit clinics that do not operate “high-end, luxurious medical suites,” says Janet Crepps, deputy director of US legal programs for the Center for Reproductive Rights, an organization based in New York City that tracks studies abortion public policy.

The cost of having to operate a second location would not just create financial strain, especially for clinics located in rural areas, it would “undermine access to health care for women who may have to now go to two places instead of going to one place,” Ms. Crepps says. “It’s not the way that we should be providing health care to anyone.”

Another potential way to ease the political pressure – becoming a for-profit organization and charging full service fees – also works against the mission of affordable and accessible health-care, Crepps says. That leaves Planned Parenthood with little option other than to fight states in federal court.

“The overall strategy is defeating the legislation,” says Tait Sye, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood in Washington.

There are signs that Planned Parenthood’s funding will become a topic during the upcoming Republican presidential primary. Last week, Minnesota State Rep. Michele Bachmann (R), who is a potential presidential candidate, told an audience in Washington that she is calling for defunding of the organization in her state. Calling Planned Parenthood “corrupt,” she said it contributes to “the trafficking of underage girls.”

“Do you think we could start here by defunding this organization?” Congresswoman Bachmann said.

Last month, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich similarly called the defunding of the organization “a good fight.” “Should your tax money go to pay the leading abortion provider in America?” he asked.

Why states are in a rush

In statehouses, Kansas was successful in passing a measure that prioritizes what health-care organizations get funding, with state health departments at the top, followed by hospitals and community centers, with family planning clinics at a distant bottom. The measure becomes enacted in July.

The reason why the issue is being raised so frequently since the November 2010 midterm election is that both political parties understand that they have to act quickly to push their legislation, says Marjorie Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University in Bloomington.

“I think both parties have learned they may have a fairly narrow window in which to get what they want enacted into law … you have to do it pretty fast because the chances are pretty good you’ll be losing [majority control] within the next few years,” Ms. Hershey says. “It’s harder to get these things undone once they’re enacted into law.”

A ruling on whether or not to grant Planned Parenthood request for a temporary injunction against the Indiana law will happen by July 1. The court battle to determine if the law is valid could take months.

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