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Point Austin: First, Do No Harm

To attack Planned Parenthood, the state sacrifices Texas women

By Michael King, Fri., May 4, 2012

Women protested the war against Planned Parenthood and women's health last weekend at the Capitol.
Women protested the war against Planned Parenthood and women's health last weekend at the Capitol.
Photo by Jana Birchum

Having written last week about Gov. Rick Perry's latest budgetary follies ("Point Austin: The Governor's Principles," April 27), I anticipated plunging back this week into the contentious gristle of city politics. Then along came 5th U.S. Cir­cuit Court Judge Jerry E. Smith, with his abrupt same-day stay of U.S. Dis­trict Judge Lee Yeakel's Monday injunction, which briefly prevented the state of Texas from excluding Planned Par­enthood from the Women's Health Pro­gram. Jordan Smith reports in detail today on the court decisions ("Planned Parenthood in the WHP: On Again, Off Again"). Texans can now await the outcome of another appeal.

Some Texans, of course, will be waiting with rather more urgency: the many thousands of women who rely on Planned Parenthood clinics for effectively their only health care. Their lives have once again been put in jeopardy by Perry and the Legislature's obsession with an entirely political war on PP, for generations one of the most respected (and efficient) providers of health care for women. Presidential and partisan politics are now relentlessly overriding the needs of Texas families, in a cynical strategy that elevates the ideological value of fetuses above the actual lives of Texas women.

That's now the legal burden of Attorney Gen­er­al Greg Abbott, who signed off on the brief defending the state's decision to ban PP from the WHP. The brief presents an extraordinarily tendentious and condescending argument, and the reasons it gives for the state's position are as outrageous and dishonest as the banning legislation itself. According to the state's brief, "the Texas Women's Health Program is designed to reduce abortion by subsidizing nonabortion methods of family planning."

So by excluding nearly half of WHP clients – those served by Planned Parenthood clinics – the state pretends it will reduce abortion, when every relevant study reflects that the opposite will happen. But the argument hardly stops there – if it's not allowed to ban Planned Parenthood, says the state, it will have no choice but to shut down the WHP altogether: "state law requires [the Health & Human Services Commission] to 'ensure' that no taxpayer flows to abortion-promoting entities, which means that the program will cease to exist and cannot be revived."

Legal Blackmail

I suppose it's useful to know that the state of Texas is not above blackmail when it comes to attacking Planned Parenthood, and it's not at all squeamish about leaving women's bodies in its wake. The state's argument is the rough equivalent of a doctor declaring, "Unless you allow me to maim this patient, I'm just going to have to let her die." Of course, the state's casualties will be on a much larger scale – the program served approximately 100,000 women in 2010, many of whom have no access to another provider for basic medical attention – but in the service of family fetal values, sacrifices must be made.

Judge Yeakel (a Republican and a Bush appointee, by the way) itemized on a smaller, more comprehensible scale what the state decision will mean in terms of abandoned patients: Planned Parenthood of North Texas, 7,000 women; PP of Hidalgo County, 6,500 women; PP Association of Lubbock, 2,000 women; PP of West Texas, 3,000 women – all with effectively no other clinics available. Moreover, continued Yeakel, "If Plaintiffs are forced to close some health centers or to reduce their centers' hours, the tens of thousands of additional clients they serve will also be harmed."

The state's response: Either let us close those clinics, serving many thousands of Texas women, or we will shut down not only those but every other WHP clinic as well.

Idle Politics, Real Lives

That legal ultimatum is rather different from Perry's thus far empty promise to find state monies to replace the federal government's current WHP contribution of $9 for every $1 provided by the state. The federal government created the WHP Medicaid-waiver program (allowing women not otherwise covered by Medicaid to receive services), and it sets the standards for program participants – including PP, which through other, non-federally funded programs provides completely legal abortion services, although not at any of the WHP clinics. As Yeakel laid out in his injunction, "the government may not condition participation in a government program or receipt of a government benefit upon an applicant's exercise of protected rights" [and further] "Texas is reaching beyond the scope of the government program and penalizing Plaintiffs for their protected conduct."

Writing in The Washington Post this week ("Let's just say it: The Republicans are the problem," April 27), conservative scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein argue that our national political polarization and dysfunction is not "bipartisan"; "we have no choice but to acknowledge," they write, "that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party." The GOP has moved so far to the right, ideologically and strategically, that it has made government-by-compromise not just difficult, but inadmissible. That may seem just like a "politics" problem, or a "Washington" problem – but here in Texas, where the lives of hundreds of thousands of women stand in the balance, it's very much a human problem that cannot be wished away.

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