Karen Heller: Some family-planning wisdom from Nixon

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), speaking last week at a rally in support of Planned Parenthood. Three percent of the group's services involve abortion.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), speaking last week at a rally in support of Planned Parenthood. Three percent of the group's services involve abortion.
Posted: April 13, 2011

The federal government almost shut down Friday, not over fiscal policy but over concerns of taxpayers funding abortion. We don't.

"If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that's well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does," said Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Well, no. Abortion constitutes 3 percent of what Planned Parenthood does. More than 90 percent of the organization's services, 96 percent if you prefer specifics - Kyl, apparently, does not - are for contraception, cancer screening, detection and treatment of sexually transmitted disease, and other health issues. Kyl's office later said the comment was "not intended to be a factual statement."

Oh.

Why are we fighting about reproductive health? One thing we know about human beings is that they have sex. And sex, without proper use of contraceptives, will lead to unintended pregnancies.

Let's consider some factual statements. The average American woman desiring two children will spend five of her reproductive years pregnant, postpartum, or trying to become pregnant.

She'll spend three decades trying to avoid pregnancy.

Fortunately, there's been tremendous progress in reproductive health. Contraceptives are safe, plentiful, and used at least once by 99 percent of women who have had intercourse. Few people are on the other side.

"It is my view that no American woman should be denied access to family-planning assistance because of her economic condition. I believe therefore that we should establish as a national goal the provision of adequate family-planning services within the next five years to all those who want them but cannot afford them. This we have the capacity to do."

The liberal firebrand who uttered these words was Richard Nixon, signing Title X into law in 1970.

Yet here we are four decades later with some legislators trying to cut off access to family-planning funding, holding the government hostage, while calling it a debate about the nation's financial health.

And we know why that is: abortion, legal since 1973. But, and this bears repeating, the government does not fund abortions.

Providing safe, quality, and affordable family planning is sound fiscal policy. The Guttmacher Institute, which studies sexual and reproductive health, determined that every $1 the government invests in family planning saves taxpayers almost $4.

But that's a "pretty limited calculation," says Guttmacher's Adam Sonfield, because it estimates only Medicaid coverage of prenatal visits, birth, and one year of infant checkups.

If the child and mother continue to live in poverty, the ultimate cost to taxpayers through attendant federal services and subsidies is much, much more.

"We do more in one day to prevent the need for an abortion than any other organization," says Dayle Steinberg, president of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania. The organization operates 15 health centers in four counties, serving almost 59,000 residents annually, the largest provider of reproductive health care in the region. It is also the largest provider of abortions, and emergency contraceptives.

During the last two decades, the rate of teenage pregnancy has dropped about 40 percent to its lowest level in 70 years, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released last week while Congress was fighting over the wisdom of funding reproductive health. The reduction is because of a decrease in sexual activity coupled with an increase in contraceptive use.

Yet, far too many teenage girls are still having babies - 400,0000 annually, at a cost to taxpayers of $9 billion each year. If a teenager wants to remain in poverty, one of the fastest ways to do so is to have a baby. The truth is, public funding for reproductive health has stalled - and now there are efforts to decrease the federal appropriation - while the need has only grown.

"We can talk about real success in our publicly funded family-planning programs," Sonfield says. "Nearly two million unintended pregnancies were prevented in 2006, which would have otherwise resulted in 860,000 births and 810,000 abortions."

If you're against abortions, why cut public funding that helps reduce their number? "Why would you take a two-by-four to poor women?" Steinberg asks.

In compassion, foresight, and government's role, Nixon had it right.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com. Read her blog posts on Blinq and her work at www.philly.com/KarenHeller. Follow her on Twitter @kheller.

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