Poor caught in a culture war

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Esther Cepeda
March 17, 2011
— If I were the communications director for Planned Parenthood, I’d try to convince the organization to embrace the convention of listing the many important services they provide in reverse-alphabetical order.

This way, the free or low-cost procedures that make up 97 percent of the health organization’s offerings—prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, general health care, contraception—would be at the top of the list rather than starting off with the one service that vexes so many: abortion.

And yet, though abortion is, as the Planned Parenthood website says, “A safe and legal way to end pregnancy,” the organization is at risk of being able to provide basic medical care to the poorest men and women because it offers the one procedure that has been the lightning rod of America’s culture wars. I certainly never thought of the organization, whose general health care services I took advantage of in my younger days, as an abortion mill. But that’s the way it’s being painted by those who want the Republican-led House of Representatives to slash Planned Parenthood’s partial funding through the Title X national family-planning program in the name of federal budget belt-tightening.

Though op-ed writers and women’s activists across the country are pointing to the proposed cuts as part of a long-running Republican war on women’s access to health care, along with employment and food assistance, low-income men will be affected, too.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2009 Family Planning Annual Report, about 7 percent of all people who sought family planning assistance through organizations that received Title X funds were men. Of the 1.5 million users who identified themselves as being Hispanic or Latino, 30 percent of them were men. Of all males, 22 percent identified themselves as black. Planned Parenthood, arguably the most well-known reproductive health organization in the country, says it is serving increasing numbers of Hispanic and African-American women and more men.

“Right now, about one-quarter of all our clients are men and that number is growing,” said Destiny Lopez, the director of Latino engagement at Planned Parenthood. “For the men we’re seeing, much like the women, we’re the only source of medical care they get in a year.”

Men tend to first visit Planned Parenthood with their girlfriends and then rely on the organization for sexually transmitted disease prevention and treatment, and birth control.

“For you or me it’s no big deal to go to the drug store and buy a package of condoms,” Lopez said, “but last year we gave out 30,000 condoms to Latino men who couldn’t afford the full price but were able to access them from us at low or no cost.”

Lopez said that once men get comfortable accessing those services, they start relying on Planned Parenthood for basic health care, ranging from treating such common ailments as rashes to screening for colon and prostate cancer. And those are just some of the everyday—but potentially life-saving—non-abortion services Planned Parenthood provides but never seems to get any recognition for. Others are intercourse delay programs, prenatal care, adoption referrals, and menopause management services. But those don’t grab the headlines that abortions do, even though abortions represent just 3 percent of all Planned Parenthood services.

What should get taxpayer’s attention is that during their 2008-09 fiscal year, Planned Parenthood says it provided basic health care for 3 million otherwise uninsured low-income men and women, and prevented about 621,000 unintended pregnancies. If, in fact, the attack on Title X funds, which cannot be used for abortions, is based purely on dollars and cents, then the whole austerity argument falls apart on the simple premise that in almost all cases, prevention is cheaper than treatment.

Lopez says that for every $1 that Planned Parenthood and other family planning organizations spend on services such as HIV and HPV prevention, cancer screening and birth control, it saves taxpayers nearly $4 in other health care costs. But we all know it’s not just the money. Ideology has seeped into what should really be a pragmatic budgetary decision to fund programs that give impoverished people a fighting chance to get the kind of medical attention the middle class routinely accesses.

What that really amounts to is not a war on women or on reproductive rights, but yet another example of the rapidly intensifying attack on America’s poor.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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