Like their classmates around the state, 4th graders in public schools in Summit, N.J. this year will be shepherded into class by the school nurse, separated by gender, and formally introduced to "human growth and development" -- what we used to call sex ed. They'll sit through a power point presentation on puberty, hear a bit about the pimples, body odor, and cliques that go with it, and file back to class. It all takes about 45 minutes.
Sounds pretty routine, but here in leafy, upscale Summit, N.J., where still-employed investment bankers and graduate degrees are the norm, this bland curriculum triggered a small but well-organized firestorm in 2010. It turns out that the school administration and nurses, responding to state requirements, had decided to use some resource materials supplied by Planned Parenthood for the 4th and 5th grade curricula. Planned Parenthood's name would not appear anywhere on the materials, but some residents would have none of it.
Their vehemence was a little bewildering at first, given the benign -- and boring -- state-mandated content. But of course it shouldn't have been. Planned Parenthood has become the bogey man of the right, an irresistible target that pushes all the hot buttons of angry social conservatives.
A few parents mobilized against Planned Parenthood 's involvement and the 4th and 5th grade materials: ugly phone calls targeted the school administration, incendiary letters appeared in local papers, and mass emails circulated by a parishioner of the local Catholic Church called on members to descend on the School Board -- rosaries in hand -- to fight Planned Parenthood, an organization devoted "to sexualizing America's youth while happily lifting the restraints of God, parents, or marriage."
In the end, the Board of Education heard all parties, agreed not to allow Planned Parenthood educators in the classroom as the school nurses had originally wanted, and voted unanimously to use the ever-so-slightly modified curriculum. But you can be sure the battle's not over. Two of the most vocal anti-Planned Parenthood Republicans are now running for spots on our city council.
That minor uproar turned out to foreshadow what was to come at the state level: Governor Chris Christie's goal of eliminating state funding for Planned Parenthood. Since he took office, Christie has cut all $7.45 million in state support for "family planning health centers" -- of which Planned Parenthood is the largest. He vetoed three attempts by a bi-partisan group of legislators to restore funding with "found" money from other pots in the budget.
This probably should not have been surprising either. "Defund Planned Parenthood" has become a rallying cry of the right nationwide, and an ideological purity test, despite the fact that the United States has one of the highest rates of unintended pregnancy in the industrialized world, and that public investment in family-planning programs has a strong record of saving tax payers money in the long run. But Republicans seem happy to sacrifice family planning if it makes abortion less available. And empowering women to decide when they want to become parents is certainly not a priority, particularly when the goal is a return to some imaginary time that only existed on Leave It To Beaver.
Most of Planned Parenthood's centers are supported by Title X, a family-planning grant program funded by the federal government for low-income women. A typical patient is a low-income working woman between the ages of 20 and 24 who is ineligible for Medicaid and has no health insurance. In New Jersey last year, 95% of patients served were at or below 200% of the Federal poverty level.
As for Planned Parenthood's services, well over 90% are comprised of cancer screenings, birth control, prevention and treatment of STD's, breast health services, pap tests, sexual health education, information and counseling. Abortion makes up less than 3%. Anyway, says Michele Jaker, CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of New Jersey, in the Garden State "Government contracts for family planning do not permit funding for abortion services. That was spelled out in the state contracts."
According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2008 contraceptive services provided by family planning centers in New Jersey helped women avoid 25,700 unintended pregnancies, which would have resulted in 10,700 abortions. By helping women avoid unintended pregnancies and births, New Jersey saved more than $130 million in public funds. In short, every dollar spent on subsidized family-planning services saves about $4 in Medicaid expenses down the road. Perhaps we can retire once and for all the false assertion that cutting public funds for family planning is about saving money.
Poor minority women will be the ones most affected by reduced access to family planning clinics. As it is, they have disproportionately high rates of unintended pregnancies and abortion, just as they have higher rates of diabetes and heart disease. As in most areas of life, those without power are easiest to punish.
Back in New Jersey, in an attempt to deflect charges that he's anti-woman, Governor Christie has begun to trumpet his support for Federally Qualified Health Centers around the state. But these primary care centers are already overburdened, and most don't offer on-site birth control. We can be sure, with poverty rates hitting a 27-year high, and unemployment numbers not far behind, that the demand for inexpensive, high-quality health care won't drop off any time soon. Why then, during a time of epic economic misery, redirect every last cent of state funds away from an organization that serves so many and that has a history of delivering quality, low-cost health care?
If you follow the inflamed rhetoric of Planned Parenthood's opponents, it makes more sense. "Nobody has any problem trying to have no affiliation with nefarious organizations such as the Nazis or apartheid regimes," State Senator Michael Doherty said on September 14th at a N.J. Right to Life rally aimed at Planned Parenthood. "But somehow, we're asked to use our tax dollars to support these type of organizations." Ah, it's the culture war!
The battle goes way beyond New Jersey. In the House's budget bill passed earlier this year (that almost shut down the government,) Republicans sought to eliminate all support for Title X -- even though the law prohibits use of these funds for abortion -- and Planned Parenthood. Around the same time, Congressman Chris Smith -- from N.J.! -- proposed a bill penalizing small businesses who offer insurance coverage that includes abortion.
Family planning wasn't always a partisan issue. Title X was passed in 1970 by Republican President Richard Nixon and a Democratic Congress. Millicent Fenwick, a beloved N.J. Republican who served in the House from 1974-1982, was a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood. Known as the Conscience of Congress, Fenwick would no doubt be appalled at today's Republican assault on family planning in general and Planned Parenthood in particular. Reflecting on her ever-evolving views on issues she once said, "You can't close your mind to evidence." Oh, but you can.
In the fact-free universe where the far right resides, science and evidence that contradict ideology are simply ignored. Keep telling yourself and the rest of the world that Planned Parenthood is no better than a gang of Hitler's Brown Shirts, and you'll start to believe it. Keep telling yourself and the rest of the world that scrubbing the content of a 4th grade health class will keep your children chaste and innocent, and you'll start to believe it. Keep telling yourself and the rest of the world that destroying Planned Parenthood will end abortion and inspire abstinence, and you'll start to believe it. We are all entitled to our opinions. But when your magical thinking becomes our public policy, the rest of us in the non-militant majority will have to live with the consequences.