How the Trump Administration Could Use COVID-19 to Defund Planned Parenthood

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Analysis My Body. My Rules.

How the Trump Administration Could Use COVID-19 to Defund Planned Parenthood

Imani Gandy

Anti-choice activists are pushing bad faith arguments to get the Trump administration to exclude Planned Parenthood from Medicaid.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a wealth of opportunity for anti-choice activists and lawmakers to advance their agenda by demonizing their favorite nemesis, Planned Parenthood. And in President Donald Trump, they have found a champion willing to exorcise that demon.

The Trump administration has already forced Planned Parenthood out of Title X due to the administration’s domestic “gag rule,” which bars federal family planning dollars from being distributed to health-care providers that provide abortion care or referrals for abortion services.

But that’s not enough. Anti-choicers want the Trump administration to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding entirely by excluding Planned Parenthood from Medicaid reimbursements. Essentially, they want the Trump administration to defund cancer screenings.

When it comes to preventive health care like family planning and contraception, cancer screenings, Pap smears, breast exams, and STI testing and treatment, Planned Parenthood acts like any other Medicaid provider: They provide a service, and the federal government reimburses them for that service.

Thanks to the discriminatory Hyde Amendment, no federal funds are used for abortion except in cases of life endangerment.

What offense will anti-choicers ascribe to Planned Parenthood in order to make its case to the Trump administration for Medicaid exclusion? That’s unclear. Certainly the concocted narrative that Planned Parenthood is wasting and indeed hoarding critical personal protective equipment amid the COVID-19 outbreak may stoke enough outrage to give cover for the Trump administration to permanently kick Planned Parenthood off of Medicaid.

While it would be ridiculous for the Trump administration to refuse to reimburse Planned Parenthood for Pap smears and cancer screenings based on unproven claims of resource hoarding, remember that the Trump administration couldn’t care less about poor and vulnerable people and would do anything to appease the anti-choice radicals who support the president.

Planned Parenthood fills a health-care gap for vulnerable people. It operates more than 600 health centers nationwide, providing 2.4 million patients with health-care services wholly unrelated to abortion, such as family planning and contraception, Pap smears, cancer screenings, breast exams and STI testing and treatment. Of those patients, 16 percent are Black and 23 percent are Latinx. Nearly 75 percent live with incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty line.

So when anti-choicers demand that Planned Parenthood be excluded from Medicaid reimbursement, they are advocating for stripping health care from vulnerable and often poor people who rely on Planned Parenthood for preventive care—services that have nothing to do with abortion. But to Fetus Firsters, Planned Parenthood is the boogeyman hiding under their beds and threatening to abort everything in sight. And the COVID-19 pandemic has offered an opportunity for anti-abortion advocates and lawmakers to continue trying to take down the reproductive health-care giant.

Whether it’s endless investigations and audits into Planned Parenthood’s books—to ensure that Planned Parenthood is following the law and that no federal dollars are being used for abortion care—or deceptive sting operations engineered by con artists like Lila Rose and David Daleiden, Planned Parenthood has been a fixed target of abortion rights foes. Whatever the situation, these activists will wield any weapon in their war against abortion.

The COVID-19 pandemic is no different.

Armed with made-up and source-free statistics, anti-choice activists are incensed that many states are permitting abortion care to continue during the pandemic (as if the pandemic is the reason they are trying to end legal abortion) and have concocted a narrative that has already been dismantled but remains abortion opponents’ clarion call: Planned Parenthood is hoarding and wasting personal protective equipment that could be used to care for COVID-19 patients.

The claim crumbles under the slightest scrutiny.

As abortion providers in the lawsuits challenging efforts to ban abortion during the COVID-19 pandemic have repeatedly said, abortion does not require extensive use of personal protective equipment. And medication abortion doesn’t require any of that equipment.

For procedural abortions, clinicians use personal protective equipment like gloves, surgical masks, and protective eyewear. They generally don’t use N95 masks—the personal protective equipment in the shortest supply—and only do so to protect patients and staff from potential transmission of COVID-19.

There is no evidence to suggest banning abortion will lead to some critical mass of available personal protective equipment.

There is evidence, however, to suggest banning abortion will likely increase the influx of patients into health-care systems, which in turn could deplete hospital resources. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have said they don’t have any idea how COVID-19 affects pregnant people: But the CDC has said that “pregnant people have had a higher risk of severe illness when infected with viruses from the same family as COVID-19 and other viral respiratory infections, such as influenza.”

Finally, carrying a pregnancy to term consumes more personal protective equipment than abortion does. In a hearing to determine whether Alabama’s COVID-19 abortion ban should be blocked, one of the abortion providers challenging the policy testified that for routine pregnancies, patients will attend ten to 13 doctor’s appointments. An abortion patient, on the other hand, will attend only two or three.

This is common sense. Prenatal visits for a routine pregnancy obviously require more doctors’ visits than even the most complicated abortion. And patients with difficult pregnancies require even more doctors’ visits. Claiming that banning abortion will conserve hospital resources is a transparent effort to exploit the pandemic and accomplish a long-held goal of banning legal abortion, logic be damned.

Anti-choicers believe it’s selfish for Planned Parenthood to continue performing abortions. Indeed, some anti-choice activists insist that abortion clinics are trying to exploit the crisis to boost their bottom line, and that their claim that abortion care is essential is somehow self-serving. But, it’s only self-serving if you buy the lie that abortion is a billion dollar industry for Planned Parenthood (it is not) and that providing abortion care is profitable (again, no).

Jeanne Mancini and Tom McClusky, writing for the the Daily Caller, an ultra conservative website, sounded the alarm two weeks ago:

Abortion for Planned Parenthood is a one-billion-dollar industry, and its leadership is more focused on protecting the brand and advancing a radical ideology than protecting people. While governors across the nation are mandating that non-essential businesses close to help curb the spread of coronavirus, Planned Parenthood’s abortion business marches on.

Planned Parenthood’s abortion business does march on. Because pregnant people’s desire to control their own reproductive autonomy—including by terminating an unwanted pregnancy—marches on. But guess what else marches on? Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion health-care services, which make up the overwhelming majority of the services Planned Parenthood provides.

Mancini and McCluskey continue:

We hope that, with the support of a president who promised to defund this bad actor (which spends tens of millions of dollars to elect pro-abortion politicians, by the way), Planned Parenthood will finally be excluded from Medicaid reimbursement.

“Exclusion” is done all the time. In fact, the Health and Human Services (HHS) Inspector General has reported over 9,000 cases over the last two decades. Planned Parenthood has violated a number of the criteria the HHS Inspector General specifies as cause for exclusion.

But those criteria involve some sort of ethical lapse like patient neglect, or providing services which fail to meet professionally recognized standards of health care, or criminal charges, like Medicare or Medicaid fraud.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented public health crisis. Excluding Planned Parenthood from Medicaid reimbursements, thus stripping low-income people of preventive care, would create another public health crisis. One public health-care crisis is enough, don’t you think?