"(I am proud of) trying to defund Planned Parenthood and make sure they didn’t have any money, not just for abortion, but money for anything."
This is gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker speaking to Wisconsin Right to Life last April, boasting about his record as a state legislator. And for this constituency, now-Governor Walker has come through. His recently released budget proposes to repeal Wisconsin’s “contraceptive equity” law which stipulates that that health insurance plans in the state that cover prescription drugs cover contraception. The budget also eliminates the state’s participation in the Title V Maternal and Child Health program, which provides family planning services as well as other health services for both men and women, including prostate and cervical cancer screenings. Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin argues that such a move would mean the loss of four million dollars (of both state and federal funds) affecting 50 health centers in the state (PP receives about one quarter of Wisconsin’sTitle V funds).
Scott Walker’s actions in the short time he has been governor (he took office in January) were supposed to serve as a template for the newly energized Republican governors and state legislators who came to power as a result of the November 2010 “shellacking.” That is, please your religious right base by going after birth control services in general and Planned Parenthood in particular, and please economic conservatives by offering generous tax breaks to corporations, massively cutting social programs, and greatly weakening, if not destroying, public sector unions.
As a fascinated country has seen for the past several weeks, that part about destroying the unions hasn’t played so well. Walker’s poll numbers are tanking. The Republican leaning Rasmussen poll recently found that nearly 60% of Wisconsin likely voters now disapprove of Walker, with 48% “strongly disapproving.” Observing Walker’s situation, a number of other Republican governors have backed off from earlier plans to similarly combat public sector unions in their states.
Thus far, however, neither Republicans in Congress or in state houses show signs of retreating from the harsh and increasingly bizarre war they are waging on abortion and contraception. In Congress, Republicans (and a handful of Democrats) voted to defund Planned Parenthood and Title X, a program that funds family planning and other basic reproductive health services, and passed legislation that permits hospitals to deny lifesaving abortions. At the state level, several states are considering legislation that has been interpreted as making the killing of abortion providers “justifiable homicide,” Georgia is considering a “prenatal murder” bill that would make miscarriages suspect unless a woman could “prove” she did nothing to cause it, and S. Dakota has decreed that before a woman can receive an abortion she must first go to a blatantly antiabortion “Crisis Pregnancy Center” for counseling—and then wait three days before seeking an abortion.
But there are signs that the American public is noting with alarm these fanatical measures. Just released data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows a “movement toward a liberal position on abortion.” While much has been made of a 2009 poll that showed the public evenly divided on the question of whether abortion should be legal, Pew reports that “support for legal abortion has recovered” and now stands at 54%, with 39% opposed. Similarly, two recent polls show voter disapproval of the defunding of Planned Parenthood, with particularly strong opposition among women and younger respondents.
Though both the right and the left have tended to treat economic issues, including the fate of labor unions, and reproductive rights as separate phenomena, with two different constituencies, in the real lives of working people, these issues are very much connected. Hardly surprisingly, in difficult economic times people try to control their childbearing. This was true during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and it is true today. The Guttmacher Institute released a report, at the height of the current recession that showed that many women did not feel they could afford another child and that they they were committed to using birth control more consistently. Yet the report also showed that one in four respondents put off a visit to a family planning center because they could not afford it.
It is too soon to know the significance of the poll numbers cited above, or of the nation-wide demonstrations in recent weeks in support of both labor unions and Planned Parenthood. Possibly, though, this political moment may mark a serious pushback against the Right’s extraordinary overreach, since the 2010 election, in its eagerness to abolish both the workplace conditions and health care services needed by so many.