Of all the supposed "pork" in the proposed economic stimulus bill,
perhaps none got so much media attention as the provision to extend
family planning to more low-income women. As the House struggled to
pass the legislation, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a
press release (1/23/09) claiming that the plan "includes taxpayer
funding for contraceptives and the abortion industry." Two days later,
Boehner railed on NBC’s Meet the Press (1/25/09), "Spending…over $200 million for contraceptives, how [is] this going to fix an ailing economy?"
It didn’t take long for media to pile on. Cal Thomas-one of the most
widely syndicated columnists-parroted Boehner nearly word for word
(1/26/09): "There are millions included for contraceptives and the
abortion industry, which are unrelated to job creation." Sean Hannity (Fox News, 2/5/09) called it "reckless spending."
And it wasn’t just far-right punditry that got riled up. MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell pressed Rep. Chris Van Hollen (1/26/09):
O’DONNELL: How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives? How does that stimulate the economy?
VAN HOLLEN: Well, I think if you look at government spending as a
whole, I mean, any economist will tell you that when the government
goes out and spends a dollar, that’s a dollar in the economy that has a
multiplier effect. So-
O’DONNELL: On contraceptives, really?
VAN HOLLEN: No. No. Look, look.
O’DONNELL: Really? Can you give me that with a straight face, congressman?
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Her colleague Chris Matthews (Hardball,
1/26/09) went so far as to claim: "It sounds a little like China….I
think everybody should have family planning….But why should the federal
government have a policy of reducing the number of births?"
There was virtually no corner of the corporate media that didn’t
propagate the "millions for contraceptives" trope-the day after Boehner
put out his press release (1/24/09), both the New York Times and Washington Post ran his quote unchallenged; reporters from CNN (e.g., 1/26/09) to NPR (e.g., 1/29/09) to PBS (e.g., 1/30/09) repeated it as fact.
But there’s a problem: The talking point was, it seems, a complete fabrication.
First of all, the policy had nothing to do with "the abortion industry"
or a Chinese-style limit on how many kids families can have. And
reducing it to a scornfully tossed-off "contraceptives" fails to convey
what the provision would do: allow states to bypass onerous federal
hoop-jumping in order to cover more low-income women under Medicaid.
This would make family planning services available for women who would
be eligible for pregnancy-related Medicaid services, thereby saving the
costs of unwanted pregnancies for both the federal and state
governments. (Currently, the income cut-off is higher for women who
aren’t already pregnant.) The family planning program was created under
the Republican Nixon administration, and eight states with Republican
governors thought the idea of expanding it was uncontroversial enough
that they’ve already jumped through all those federal hoops the
provision would simply have removed (Talking Points Memo, 1/26/09).
Even more outrageous, the "hundreds of millions of dollars" claim seems
to have been conjured out of thin air. Nowhere in the proposed
legislation was a cost assigned to the provision, nor could it be found
in the Congressional Budget Office report that estimated costs and
savings of the plan. In fact, the CBO estimated in a January 21 report
obtained by ThinkProgress
that the family planning provision would actually save the federal
government $700 million over 10 years-and that’s not even considering
the savings to state governments.
As Cristina Page at Rewire noted (1/30/09), Rep. Henry Waxman’s calls to Boehner’s office about the claim found him "not forthcoming." Extra!’s
repeated inquiries likewise produced nothing to substantiate Boehner’s
claims. His office, it would seem, simply invented the whole thing.
And yet instead of performing the basic journalistic task of
fact-checking an easily falsifiable talking point from a GOP press
release, mainstream reporters gleefully repeated it until the provision
was forced off the table. Days later, a few mentioned the true CBO
numbers (e.g., New York Times, USA Today,
both 1/28/09), but quietly enough not to actually challenge the myth,
unlike the moderate pushback mustered against the similar GOP myth
about Nancy Pelosi’s supposed $30 million earmark for marsh mice (FAIR Blog, 3/2/09).
It’s a lesson in the complacency of the Washington press corps;
according to the corporate media’s warped rules of "professionalism"
(see Extra!, 11-12/04),
it’s not journalists’ job to judge a source’s credibility, ferret out
lies or bring up anything that "important people" aren’t already
saying-they’re simply there to report what those important people say.
And since most Democrats were woefully uninformed on the issue and
didn’t push back, journalists didn’t think twice about running with it.
But it’s also a lesson in the respect accorded issues of women’s rights
and health in the corporate, male-dominated media. Few journalists
paused to consider that family planning could actually be a valuable
piece of an economic plan, or the enormous effect it could have on
struggling low-income women across the country; instead, they simply
accepted that the provision was "pork" (e.g., CNN, 1/27/09).
As NPR’s Keith Reed argued (2/2/09):
You can debate, for example, the merits of
family planning and whether or not that’s a good thing or something
that the federal government should be participating in. But I think no
matter what side of the aisle you’re on, how much does that really have
to do with the economy?
A whole lot, actually. As economist Nancy Folbre pointed out on the New York Times Economix blog (2/5/09),
family planning spending would generate roughly as many jobs as other
health spending, and long-term savings-as the CBO also noted-are high.
Folbre also emphasized that family planning increases women’s "access
to higher education and better-paying jobs," and pointed to the
economic disparities involved: Women in the income bracket that would
have been aided by the provision are more than three times as likely to
experience unplanned births than their wealthier counterparts-and thus
more likely to experience the associated financial burdens.
In a rare voice in support of including the family planning program in the package, Boston Globe
columnist Ellen Goodman wrote (1/30/09): "Women’s health was reframed
as pork and dumped as if it were no more fundamental to family life
than the proposal to refurbish the National Mall. All this in an
elusive quest for bipartisan support."
And it couldn’t have happened without the corporate media.
This article was first published by FAIR in Extra!