Media Must Challenge Anti-Choice Falsehoods About Planned Parenthood

“Media should be making clear to readers that there’s a cost to policymaking that’s based on misinformation—and it’s often the well-being of those who are often already marginalized,” Media Matters' Reproductive Rights Program Director Sharon Kann told Rewire.

Should the federal government strip reproductive health-care clinics from its funding programs, it will be devastating for millions of people who rely on such providers, not always just for reproductive care. Laura Segall/AFP/Getty Images

The anti-choice myth that community health centers could easily fill in for Planned Parenthood if the reproductive health-care provider loses federal funding has become pervasive among conservatives hoping to justify defunding the organization. It’s a claim that has been repeated by anti-choice organizations and politicians alike—and when it goes unchecked, it stands to perpetuate a falsehood that could have harmful consequences. Should the federal government strip reproductive health-care clinics from its funding programs, it will be devastating for millions of people who rely on such providers, not always just for reproductive care.

The claim appeared again last week in an advertisement in Politico’s widely read Huddle tipsheet, which offers a “play-by-play preview of the day’s congressional news.” Among the tipsheet’s sponsored headlines were multiple ads from the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List featuring misinformation and cherry-picked data about Planned Parenthood.

The text ads contained a link directing readers to a landing page on the group’s website repeating the aforementioned misinformation about reproductive health care. But the ad glosses over the truth.

“Congress will soon consider re-directing taxpayer funding away from Planned Parenthood and to community health centers, which outnumber Planned Parenthood 20:1 nationwide,” claimed the first entry. “These centers provide comprehensive health care for women but do not perform abortions or harvest fetal body parts. Polling shows the majority of Americans support this effort.”

As the Washington Post explained when fact-checking an almost identical claim by House Speaker Paul Ryan during a CNN town hall event in January, the statistic in question originates from the anti-choice Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research offshoot of the Susan B. Anthony List. The group claims that “there are 20 community health clinics for every Planned Parenthood.”

But as the Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee wrote, while the numbers themselves may be close to accurate, Ryan’s claim “is based on assumptions that are too uncertain, and lack context”:

Ryan is referring to federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics, which are both outpatient primary care health providers for underserved populations. He is correct that these centers, combined, are vastly bigger in network than Planned Parenthood and “provide these kinds of services” that Planned Parenthood does (i.e., cancer screening, STD/STI screening and treatment, contraceptive services, pregnancy tests and prenatal services).

But a key caveat is that rural health clinics — which account for about a third of the network that Ryan is referring to — are not required to provide family planning services and do not have to serve low-income patients. And federally qualified health centers provide a broader range of services and fewer contraceptive services than Planned Parenthood does. The Congressional Budget Office has warned there would be an immediate disruption of services if Congress pulls Medicaid money from Planned Parenthood and instead increases funding to federally qualified health centers.

As Rewire reported at the time of Ryan’s comments, while community health centers are a vital part of the United States’ health-care system, experts say they could not fill the gap in coverage that would occur should Republicans defund Planned Parenthood. Like Ryan, the ad from Susan B. Anthony List did not mention that the federal dollars received by the reproductive health provider—and any other provider that offers abortion care—are already blocked from paying for abortion care thanks to the Hyde Amendment.

Putting aside the clear reference to the discredited and deceptively edited videos released by the Center for Medical Progress, the ad also cherry-picks polling data to falsely claim the public supports pulling taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood.

Susan B. Anthony List’s landing page cites a single December 2015 poll from the Robert Morris University Polling Institute as evidence, but even the press release linked by the organization says, “Previous polling on the issue of funding Planned Parenthood has shown majority support for government funding of Planned Parenthood.” The poll’s authors attribute the difference to their narrowly worded question that specifically asked:

Congressional Republicans favor shifting Planned Parenthood federal funds to community clinics that perform the same services, but do not perform abortions. Would you say you support or oppose this plan?

The vast majority of other polling—including a poll recently reported on by Politico and another conducted last year by the news site itself—has indeed found that the public does not support cutting the organization off from federal funding.

Politico‘s advertising department did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Rewire about whether the outlet required their advertisements to be factual, or if these particular anti-choice ads were vetted. However, the false claim that community health centers could fill Planned Parenthood’s shoes has also appeared in several news stories from the outlet.

An August 2015 piece from Politico did note that Planned Parenthood says community clinics couldn’t absorb all of their patients should it be defunded, but presented the fact alongside a quote from a member of the GOP who disagreed and provided similarly misleading claims about the centers outnumbering Planned Parenthood clinics. A November 2016 article from the outlet reported that “Republicans say they will redirect the funding that would have gone to Planned Parenthood to community health centers,” but failed to address the implications of such a move.

In other pieces, variations of the claim were mentioned without addressing whether it was true.

Despite being roundly debunked, the assertion that community health centers could fill in for the absence of Planned Parenthood has nonetheless continued to go unchallenged in the media far beyond Politico. The falsehood is especially rampant with conservative media figures on networks like Fox News, but it has also gone unchecked in some mainstream media outlets.

For example, in the aforementioned town hall with Speaker Ryan, CNN’s Jake Tapper pushed back on the Republican’s blatantly false suggestion that taxpayer funding went to abortion care but didn’t follow up when Ryan asserted that community health centers could replace Planned Parenthood.

Speaking generally about misinformation on these topics in the media, Sharon Kann, reproductive rights program director at the media watchdog Media Matters for America, told Rewire last Tuesday by email that “allowing false statements about reproductive health to spread unchecked is incredibly dangerous, and often contributes to support for anti-choice legislation with wide-reaching, negative effects.”

When it comes to the myth that community health centers could fill in for Planned Parenthood, Kann noted that “media [outlets] have a responsibility to address the underlying argument when presenting quotes from politicians about health care access.”

“The idea that community health centers can seamlessly replace Planned Parenthood isn’t a new piece of misinformation, but it’s one that’s had staying power in part because media outlets tend to either accept the premise as true, or uncritically repeat the claim without context,” she said. “The reality—and we’ve seen this play out in multiple states that have attempted to replace Planned Parenthood—is that not all community health clinics are equipped to provide reproductive health care, or even a full set of preventative care services.”

Allowing the claims to go unchecked isn’t the only way the media allows for the perpetuation of this falsehood. “In many cases, despite the score of experts and studies refuting the 20:1 claim, media will try to report what seems like ‘both sides’—an approach that often means claims that originated with anti-choice groups and outlets are given equal weight as comments from health care experts or actual providers,” said Kann.

A feature published by CQ Magazine last week fell into this trap, allowing Ryan’s falsehoods on community health centers to go largely unchecked and instead offering a false equivalency between the anti-choice conservative and the reproductive health experts who are supported by the evidence.

“Ryan argues that the money Planned Parenthood receives … could be better put to use by community health care clinics,” the article said. Only later did it note that “Planned Parenthood and its advocates have raised concerns about whether community health centers will be able to absorb the Medicaid patients who now go to Planned Parenthood.”

That research and experts support the inability of community health centers to fill this gap goes entirely unmentioned.

According to Kann, media can better address falsehoods by asking “specific questions about precisely which providers will replace Planned Parenthood and who will be able to access their services.”

“Not all community health centers are equipped to provide reproductive health care,” Kann noted. Media [outlets] ought to be investigating this and calling out attempts to mislead the public by conflating the total number of community health centers with the much smaller subset that actually provide the same services as Planned Parenthood.” 

“More broadly, good media coverage of reproductive health and rights should uplift the voices and experiences of those who are impacted by these policy decisions,” she added. “The narratives and experiences of people who have had abortions or who no longer can access basic care when Planned Parenthood clinics close are an essential perspective that is often left out of reporting …. Media should be making clear to readers that there’s a cost to policymaking that’s based on misinformation—and it’s often the well-being of those who are often already marginalized.”