April 9, 2020

Republicans in Congress target Planned Parenthood with stimulus bill, with potentially larger impacts

The federal stimulus bill passed by Congress could lead to negative impacts on women’s health in New Mexico and other states.

The unprecedented $2 trillion in federal relief, called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump late last month is expected to provide aid to many who have been impacted by the economic fallout caused by the lack of infrastructure to contend with the respiratory virus. But buried deep within the nearly 1,000 page bill is language designed to take a swipe at Planned Parenthood. Businesses and nonprofits seeking relief money will have to go through the Trump Administration’s Small Business Association—and the agency has the ability to refuse the nonprofit organization, according to Vice. Anti-abortion lawmakers claimed it as a “win” against abortion rights.

Ellie Rushforth, reproductive rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, called that “shameful.”

“The way this has been framed as a ‘win’ is absolutely shameful. The fact [that] anti-abortion politicians are claiming victory while simultaneously taking away needed and wanted healthcare is shameful,” Rushforth told NM Political Report.

Whitney Phillips, vice president of communications and brand experience for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said Planned Parenthood clinics provide services that can make a difference for other health care providers during this unprecedented time.

“While it may be too early to identify distinct trends, what we can say is that the need for sexual and reproductive health care does not go away during this public health crisis. If anything, our ability to provide these services is more critical than ever as other providers shift to focus on responding to the pandemic,” Phillips wrote.

Rushforth also said that targeting Planned Parenthood during the pandemic could potentially have larger repercussions for women’s healthcare. Many patients rely on Planned Parenthood as their sole provider—and Planned Parenthood both accepts Medicaid and works with patients on a sliding payment scale. Rushforth said that in more than 20 percent of counties across the U.S., Planned Parenthood is the only provider to serve those patients.

“It’s a total myth that there are enough providers to replace Planned Parenthood as a major access point for care, nor should they have to. The idea that through emergency response legislative gymnastics, anti-abortion politicians are telling you what kind of health care provider you can use is a disgrace,” Rushforth said.

Phillips acknowledged that Planned Parenthood is often the only provider for many patients.

“We are very aware that for many of our patients, we are the only health care provider they see. We talk to our patients about their health and wellness to ensure we can meet as many of their health care needs as possible and connect them to additional resources as needed,” she wrote in an email.

The fact that Planned Parenthood accepts Medicaid and is flexible on payments is particularly important for people seeking health care during the pandemic because many have lost work. Phillips said Planned Parenthood never turns a patient away. Social safety services, including abortion care, should be supported now during the public health emergency and economic crisis, Rushforth said.

“Anytime social safety net programs and health care providers who work within those programs are shuttered or closed down, patients directly suffer,” Rushforth said.

She said the move has the potential to force patients to decide between buying groceries and seeking health care.

Individual states, including Texas, have declared abortion care as nonessential during the public health emergency, forcing abortion clinics to close while organizations litigate to intervene. Those litigation efforts have often enabled clinics to reopen through court injunctions. Meanwhile the fight to keep Texas’ abortion providers open faced a defeat Tuesday when an appeals court ruled that the governor’s ban could stay in place. Individual state battles over abortion can create confusion for those who seek abortion care access, according to abortion rights advocates.

It can also have a less obvious chilling effect. Rushforth said Planned Parenthood is a “larger system of care,” but many abortion clinics are small, independent clinics and they “feel the same impacts of this pandemic as other organizations.” Often a blow to an abortion provider has a ripple effect that can impact other abortion providers, according to advocates. 

“It’s truly shocking that during a global pandemic and healthcare crisis, that anti-abortion politicians are willing to play politics with people’s lives and willing to do it in any way they can,” Rushforth said.  

The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) have said abortion care is essential and should remain available during the pandemic.

But at least one abortion fund provider within the state, New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, told NM Political Report last week that it had seen an increase in callers, particularly from Texas, who needed help traveling to Albuquerque for an abortion because the governor of Texas ordered abortion providers to close last month. Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, which offers medication abortion at its clinic in Santa Fe and both medication abortion and in-clinic abortion in Albuquerque, also saw increases.

Related: As pandemic continues, abortion groups feel greater strain

“We saw a number of Texas and other out-of-state patients seek care in our region within days of restrictions around abortion care being announced in their home states. It’s important to reiterate that abortion care is essential health care. Restricting it or delaying it only adds to yet another obstacle in a patient’s path,” Phillips wrote.

The lawmakers who oppose abortion have argued that abortion providers need to close during the pandemic to preserve personal protective equipment, which hospitals, the state and other providers have said is in short supply. But abortion rights advocates have said that that, too, is another myth.

“Anti-abortion activists are using this argument as a thinly-veiled attack on our services at a time when our communities need us more than ever. The attacks on abortion rights and access during the crisis, from state governments and activist groups, are not only insulting—they’re dangerous,” Phillips wrote.

Democratic U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich both told NM Political Report through written statements that they intend to fight future GOP maneuvers as Congress considers future economic stimulus packages.

“For women across the country and especially in rural communities, health centers like Planned Parenthood are a vital resource for preventive and primary care,” Heinrich wrote.

Udall called it a “disastrous time cut funding for women’s healthcare.”

“Planned Parenthood is sometimes the only public healthcare provider in a region – delivering preventative, medical and reproductive health services not only to women but to Native and rural communities that are typically underserved,” Udall wrote. 

But Republicans, who oppose abortion rights, are in control in the Senate.