Middle TN lawmakers take on Planned Parenthood

7:33 PM, Jan 21, 2013   |    comments
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By Bob Smietana / The Tennessean 

Forty years after Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood and its critics - including U.S. Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Diane Black - are engaged in a fierce brand war.

The billion-dollar charity wants to protect its image as a trusted health-care provider and advocate for women.

Its critics say the nation's largest abortion provider is a rogue organization that misuses federal funds.

At stake is more than $500 million in government funds for Planned Parenthood's health care, prevention, and education programs. Those funds can't be used for abortion.

Blackburn and Black, both Republicans, claim the funds subsidize abortion programs. Both introduced bills in January to ban abortion providers like Planned Parenthood from Title X grants for family planning.

"Planned Parenthood received $542 million from Uncle Sam last year - they don't need or deserve your money," Blackburn said in an email.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, said the bills would harm those who rely on the nonprofit for health care. She dismissed Blackburn and Black as out of touch with the American public.

"Some members of Congress just don't get it," she said in a statement on the bills.

Dual identity

Controversy over Planned Parenthood is fueled by the nonprofit's dual identity. It is both the nation's largest abortion provider and a major source of health care for women.

According to its latest annual report, the non-profit performed about 334,000 abortions in its 750 clinics nationwide. That's a little more than a quarter of abortions in the United States.

About 10 percent of Planned Parenthood's 3 million clients had an abortion. It's not clear how much they paid for the procedures, as the nonprofit did not report the details of its abortion fees.

According to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, the average abortion cost $451 in the United States. If each client paid the national average, that adds up to about $150 million, or 15 percent of the nonprofit's budget.

Planned Parenthood also provided about 10.8 million health care services in 2011. A third of those services were for contraception. Another 41 percent were for sexually transmitted infection tests. Twelve percent were for cancer screenings, and 11 percent for other women's health services. Abortions were 3 percent of services.

Its Nashville-based chapter, Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, provided 3,124 abortions in 2011. Surgical fees for abortion made up 43 percent of the chapter's revenue, or $1.26 million, according to the group's annual tax returns.

Jeff Teague, director of the Nashville-based chapter, said the group provided a total of 20,053 services to about 7,500 clients in 2011. Of those services, 40.6 percent were for family planning and 22.7 percent for sexually transmitted infection tests. Pap smears were 4.8 percent of services, pregnancy tests were 7.8 percent, HIV tests were 3.6 percent and emergency contraception was 4.6 percent. Only 15.5 percent were for abortion.

"We are a health-care provider," said Teague. "Yes we do provide abortion service, but the vast majority of what we do is preventative health care."

'One abortion is too many'

That argument doesn't sway critics like David Fowler, president of Family Action Council of Tennessee.

He says the percentage of abortions doesn't matter. Since Planned Parenthood does abortions, it should not get any government funds. "One abortion is too many," he said.

Local and national activists have been battling Planned Parenthood for years. In the past, they've lost the public relations war. That's changed in recent years, said Margaret Musgrave, vice president for government affairs at the Susan B. Anthony List.

"We are damaging their brand," said Musgrave.

Musgrave is part of a coalition of activists, politicians, and Christian legal groups that have used legislation and lawsuits to change Planned Parenthood's reputation and cut its funding.

The Susan B. Anthony List website boasts that laws cutting a total of $61.7 million in funding for Planned Parenthood in have been passed in seven states, including Tennessee. But courts have blocked most of the funding cuts.

Abortion foes have had mixed results on the national level. In 2011, the House of Representatives approved the so-called Pence Amendment to cut funds for Planned Parenthood. The measure failed in the Senate. Pence was elected governor of Indiana in November and passed the bill on to Black.

She said that last year the charity's abortion numbers and government funding went up while its cancer screenings and contraceptive services went down. Black argues that federal funds help Planned Parenthood keep the lights on at its abortion clinics because some of the funds go for paying for overhead.

"Those dollars are keeping those clinics open," she said.

Blackburn's bill is similar. She believes the government can't afford to fund Planned Parenthood. She also said that giving taxpayer money to abortion clinics is immoral.

"It's unconscionable that Planned Parenthood is receiving record levels in funding while also performing record levels of abortions," she said.

Teague said both Tennessee politicians are wrong. Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee dropped out of Tennessee's Title X in 2012, when legislators decided to give the funds to government health clinics instead.

The previous year it got $334,600 in family planning funds. None of the money went to overhead, said Teague. Instead, the funds didn't even cover the cost of the chapter's family planning program.

The chapter's tax returns back up that claims. For fiscal year ending in June 2011, the group took in $408,603 in revenue but spent $955,159.

"It's all there in black and white," he said. "They clearly don't understand how federal grants work."

Whistleblower suits

Critics also accused Planned Parenthood of misusing government funds.

A report from Alliance Defending Freedom, a Phoenix-based Christian legal group, claims that that audits of Planned Parenthood programs in 10 states showed about $8 million in overbilling.

Whistleblower suits filed by former Planned Parent workers in California, Texas, and Iowa made similar claims.

Michael Norton, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, is the lawyer in the Houston and Iowa suits. The Iowa suit accused was dismissed in district court, but he's optimistic about the Houston suit. That suit accuses Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, based in Houston, of overbilling the Texas Women's Health Program by $5.7 million, by charging for medical services related to abortion.

Planned Parenthood has been barred from that program by legislation. Another Texas lawsuit, filed by the American Center for Law and Justice, goes to trial in Fort Worth this spring.

Norton, an abortion foe, said he hopes that politicians will crack down on Planned Parenthood.

"Everyone agrees that Planned Parenthood has to play by the same rules as anyone else," he said.

Deni Robey, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, said the organization works with government regulators and auditors to make sure it follows the law. If there's a problem, the charity acts to fix it.

"Anytime an irregularity is discovered, it is taken seriously and handled swiftly and appropriately," she said.

Efforts could backfire

Ellen Chesler, a senior fellow at the New York City-based Roosevelt Institute, said that efforts to de-fund Planned Parenthood will backfire. She pointed to a March 2012 poll from the Wall Street Journal and NBC showing that 53 percent of Americans oppose cutting funds to Planned Parenthood.

Chesler, a former Planned Parenthood board member, said that the nonprofit's internal polls show 60 percent of Americans support the organization.

"In most places, Planned Parenthood is a beloved organization," she said.

Cutting ties with Planned Parenthood proved costly last year for one major charity. Criticisms from conservatives caused Susan G. Komen for the Cure to drop a program that funds cancer screenings through Planned Parenthood.

After a public outcry, the group reversed course and founder Nancy Brinker had to step down as CEO.

Teague said the Komen flap and efforts to cut taxpayer funding have led to more public support. Donations to the group are up this year, he said. So are volunteers.

"I think people have reached a tipping point," he said.

Events this week

This week the charity has asked supporters to wear pink buttons in support of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision allowing abortion. Many chapters, including Nashville, are also hosting "Rock 'n' Roe" concerts as fundraisers. The local concert will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at the Stone Fox and will feature Rosanne Cash and Chelsea Crowell.

Nashville anti-abortion activists are also commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe. On Saturday, they held their annual "Rally for Life" on the steps of the state capital. Many will also travel to Washington, D.C., this weekend for the national annual March for Life.

Both sides point to polling as proof their side is winning.

A Gallup poll from last year showed that 51 percent of Americans say they are "pro-life" while only 41 percent call themselves "pro-choice." That's good news for abortion foes.

But another Gallup poll showed that 52 percent of American want abortion legal in most circumstances, with another 25 percent wanting it legal in all circumstances. Only 20 percent want an outright ban.

Planned Parenthood recently launched a website called Notinhershoes.org to address that polling. It features video that describes abortion as too complex for the "pro-choice" and "pro-life" labels. Abortion, it says, is a personal decision for a woman - and politicians should steer clear.

"When it comes down to it, we just don't know a woman's specific situation," the voiceover says. "We are not in her shoes."

Labels don't fit

Teague repeated that message last week in an interview. He said the pro-choice or pro-life labels don't fit the complexity of abortion.

"People can be genuinely concerned about the number of abortions," he said. "But they still want it to be safe and legal."

The conflict over Planned Parenthood, like the fight over abortion, is unlikely to end any time soon. That's because the nonprofit is a linchpin abortion provider.

In 1982, according to the Guttmacher Institute, there were more than 2,400 abortion providers in the United States. By 2008, that number had dropped to just under 1,800.

As the number of providers went down, the numbers at Planned Parenthood went up. In 1980, the group performed 77,880 abortions, or about 5 percent of the 1.55 million abortions nationwide. In 2008, Planned Parenthood performed 324,008 abortions, or 26.7 percent of abortions.

"It's America's abortion chain," said Anna Franzonello, staff counsel with Americans United for Life. "Planned Parenthood has done more than 5 million abortions since the 1970s. But almost a million of those are in the last three years. They are becoming more and more abortion-centric."

Chesler said that Planned Parenthood does more abortions because many clinics have been closed down by abortion foes.

It's disingenuous, she said, for abortion foes to now complain that Planned Parenthood does more abortions when abortion foes are partially to blame.

She said the group plays a key role in giving women access to abortion.

"They do more abortions because no one else has the courage or the infrastructure to withstand the opposition," she said.

Black won't give up

Congressman Black said it is unlikely her bill will become law this year or anytime soon. But she won't give up, in part because of her experience in the Tennessee legislature. She spent years trying to cut Title X funding for Planned Parenthood in Tennessee and failed several times, but eventually that bill succeeded.

Black believes the same thing can happen on the national level.

"These dollars need to go to women in need," she said. "Abortion is not health care."

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