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The Political Attack on Working Women and Families

This article is cross-posted with permission from New Deal 2.0.

The U.S. has one of the highest unplanned pregnancy rates in the developed world. So why are conservatives trying to defund Planned Parenthood?

Budget cutting is serious business, and it is part of a wholesale partisan attack on the lives of those who do not vote Republican. The House has voted to cut Title X, the program that provides low-income women with family planning; $75 million of the $317 million eliminated goes to Planned Parenthood. And legislation was successfully proposed by Indiana Republican Mike Pence that would deny all federal funding to Planned Parenthood. Taken together, Planned Parenthood would lose 40% of its funding.

Defunding Planned Parenthood is part of an ideological war on the government programs that make it possible for politically invisible women to control their lives. For many women who lack access to basic health care, Planned Parenthood is their only source of access to contraception, cancer screening, screening for sexually transmitted diseases, adoption counseling — and yes, as the conservatives claim, for abortion, though abortion is only 3% of its services. Cutting these programs energizes the right, but it ultimately increases both the number of abortions and the costs to the public from more unintended births. Without services from Title X-supported family planning centers, unintended pregnancy and abortion in the United States would be one-third higher, and they saved taxpayers $3.4 billion in 2008, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Like the attacks on collective bargaining in Wisconsin, they are more about ideological purity and electoral politics than about fiscal restraint.

The new cuts are intended to complete the destruction of the infrastructure that makes it possible for women to form stronger families. Congress initially voted for family planning funds under Richard Nixon, influenced by studies that showed that poor women had twice the unplanned birth rates of better off women. Today, the disparity is more than three to one and growing. The U.S. has one of the highest unplanned pregnancy rates in the developed world, and the class disparities are staggering. For college graduates and women with incomes double the poverty level, unplanned births fell 20% in the late nineties. For the poorest women, the rates grew by 29% during the same period. With the Great Recession, the number of women reporting that they cannot afford effective contraception increased substantially — and the role of abortion has shifted, with many more women who have children seeking to terminate their pregnancies because they fear that an additional child will literally take food out of the mouths of the children they already have.

Abortion rhetoric should not disguise the fact that these cuts are part of an alarming attack on women’s access to contraception. Republicans opposed the inclusion of family planning funds in the stimulus bill, they defeated efforts to mandate contraceptive coverage as part of health care reform, and they have consistently championed abstinence-only programs that disproportionately affect the school districts with the highest poverty rates. The 2008 teen birth rates in Arkansas, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas were the highest in the country, with more than 60 births per 1,000 teens. Yet each of these states emphasizes that abstinence be stressed over more effective programs. The attack on Planned Parenthood is an attack on the very symbol of women’s access to contraceptive services as part of the passage into responsible adulthood.

Over the last thirty years, the family has emerged as a marker of class in the United States, and this is no accident. During this time, the foundations have eroded that allow working class children to aspire to middle class life. First, the high paying blue collar — and union — jobs that provided the primary employment for working class men have disappeared. Second, with declining public support, college education has become increasingly unaffordable. Third, the federal government and state governments like Wisconsin, while cutting taxes for the wealthy, are slashing payrolls and support for everyone else.

The wholesale attack on women’s reproductive rights is simply the most recent effort to mobilize the Republican voting base at the expense of a group with little political visibility or support. Their supporters have easy access to contraception for themselves and their children through their Cadillac health plans. Taking away access for poorer women, engineered by the party that supposedly champions family values, further weakens working class families and marginalizes their children. These measures should be recognized for what they are: an effort to remove the ladder into the middle class for the next generation of Americans.


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