Columns, Opinion

KEULER: Understanding the Planned Parenthood debate

Planned Parenthood, one of this nation’s largest reproductive health care providers, has been a controversial organization since it was founded by Margaret Sanger in the early part of the twentieth century. That controversy has become particularly pronounced ever since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade found a constitutional right to abortion. It is easy to observe this controversy even at Boston University, simply by walking past the Planned Parenthood location in West Campus, where individuals often gather to pray or protest.

This controversy was reignited in July by a series of videos created by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group. These videos show Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, discussing the process of procuring fetal tissue during abortion procedures. She also discusses the fees that Planned Parenthood would require to provide this tissue to middlemen, who then distribute it to researchers. What many have found particularly irksome about these videos is the casual but graphic manner in which Nucatola discusses the process. Furthermore, involving money in the conversation implies a commercial transaction of body parts, turning human beings into commodities to be bought and sold, which many understandably find offensive.

The 1993 National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act allows facilities that conduct abortions to receive payment in order to cover the costs associated with transporting and distributing fetal tissue from abortions to researchers. Based on the video evidence, it does not appear that Planned Parenthood violated these permissions, but the organization is still involved in an ethically dubious practice.

In response to this controversy, Republicans in Congress and across state legislatures have called for the federal government to end its funding of Planned Parenthood. As the law currently stands, the Hyde Amendment, a rider attached to most federal appropriations bills since 1977, prohibits federal funds from being used to fund abortions except in cases of rape, incest or “where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term.”

Despite the Hyde Amendment, Planned Parenthood still receives $528 million in government funding. Some of this money comes in the form of Medicaid reimbursements, which are allocated to Planned Parenthood for specific medical services provided, with the exception of abortion. On the other hand, some of this funding comes in the form of block grants that provide a lump sum. This sum, although not technically allocated to fund abortion, makes other services cheaper for Planned Parenthood, and in turn subsidizes abortion.

Supporters of Planned Parenthood have created uproar in response to what they see as an egregious attempt by Republicans to strip people, especially economically disadvantaged people, of basic and necessary health care. A popular statistic cited in defense of Planned Parenthood­ — by supporters ranging from Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to everyday Facebook users — is that abortions only account for 3 percent of the total services Planned Parenthood provides.

Based on the numbers that Planned Parenthood reports, this is technically true but definitely misleading. In its 2013-2014 annual report, Planned Parenthood stated that it provided 10.6 million services for 2.7 million clients, or an average of 3.93 services per client. This number means that approximately 12 percent of clients Planned Parenthood interacted with in that year had an abortion. Most tellingly, abortion provides more than a third of Planned Parenthood’s revenue, so claiming that abortion is a minor or unimportant aspect of Planned Parenthood is fundamentally misleading.

Other half-truths and misrepresentations surrounding Planned Parenthood continue to exist. For example, many claim that Planned Parenthood provides the essential service of mammograms. In fact, not one Planned Parenthood facility provides mammograms, although they can refer patients to them. On the other hand, the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, claims that 94 percent of services provided by Planned Parenthood are related to abortion, which is only true after cherry-picking data.

Planned Parenthood does provide some important services aside from abortion, such as STI testing and treatment. But it is wrong to say that Planned Parenthood is just another health care provider, as its supporters would have people believe.

The issue of abortion remains a thorny one with various legal, political, moral and economic factors, even before these half-truths. If abortion is an issue that we as a society ought to address — and I would think that pro-choice and pro-life individuals across the political spectrum could agree that reducing the number of abortions is worthwhile goal — then working toward this goal requires dialogue that does not alienate or obfuscate.

Those opposed to abortion, particularly conservatives, ought to be more compassionate in their discussion of abortion, understanding that even if Planned Parenthood officials are able to discuss abortion in a disturbingly nonchalant way, the decision to have an abortion is rarely made callously. Republican leaders should also consider the extent to which policies paring back government support for the economically disadvantaged — welfare, SNAP and Medicaid, for example — could potentially increase the prevalence of abortion in this country.

On the other hand, supporters of Planned Parenthood should not blindly regurgitate statistics that present an idealized and euphemized picture of the organization when confronted with a controversy that shines a negative light on its practices. Trying to portray Planned Parenthood as simply another health organization is dishonest and detrimental to the dialogue that our country desperately needs.

More Articles

Comments are closed.