About 60 protesters stood in front of Planned Parenthood in Springfield, Missouri, joining their voices with protesters across the state and the country in a “Defund Planned Parenthood Rally” Saturday.
Organized by a Missouri State University student group, Bears for Life, the protest was part of an online effort by ProtestPP.com, which claimed at least 225 such rallies in 45 states, including three others in Missouri: in Columbia, Joplin, and St. Louis.
While the St. Louis event brought out thousands of counter-protesters, no one countered in Springfield, where the Planned Parenthood clinic was closed. Reactions to the rally from passing cars along the busy Battlefield Road were mixed—one man drove by and gave the group the finger, followed by another man who gave a thumbs-up.
The group included a handful of students; Missouri Right to Life members; Missouri State Rep. Curtis Trent, a Republican representing District 133; and others, such as Phyllis Straight, who moved to Missouri from California where she helped to establish a so-called crisis pregnancy center. Straight stood with her arms up in prayer before joining the group. “Seeing this demonstration is such a blessing to my heart,” she said. “For us to have to pay taxes and fund everything we don’t believe in, it hurts our hearts.”
According to Planned Parenthood’s 2013-2014 financial report, 98 percent of all funding is used to provide testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, cancer screening and prevention, contraception, and other women’s health services. Under current law, federal dollars cannot be used to cover abortion services, except in very limited exceptions.
A Planned Parenthood donor, Kay Powell, arrived to drop off her donation check during the protest. “If I see a protest out there, I like to give my donation then,” she said. “I want them to see an old gray-haired lady supporting the young women.”
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Powell is worried about the effort to prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal funds—mostly from Medicaid reimbursement and Title X grants, which are used to provide essential care to low-income and other marginalized populations. According to the organization’s financial report, about 41 percent of Planned Parenthood funding comes from those sources. “If they do take it away,” she said of the defunding effort, “I hope a lot of people step up.”
“Pro-Life” Talking Points
Abbie Hebron, Kourtney Mudd, and Carolyn Steensland were at the forefront of the Bears for Life effort. They are Catholics who have embraced their church’s position against abortion and have attended the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.
It was in the Bears for Life group that they learned about the national Students for Life’s Planned Parenthood Project, which “exposed Planned Parenthood” with statistics and fact sheets, said Steensland, 20, of Nixa.
Some of those statistics are included on the “Talking Points” sheet provided by #ProtestPP for the rally. They include the false claim that Planned Parenthood provides very little health care for women beyond abortions.
“I think one of the most compelling things is when they compare the work that Planned Parenthood is doing to what federal qualified health-care centers are doing,” said Hebron, 20, from O’Fallon and president of the Bears for Life chapter. “Pro-life people are always tagged as anti-women, but that’s not true. A business that performs abortion and does not view the sanctity of life, I’m not for it. But when they are not providing the services they say they are, that’s the last straw.”
Planned Parenthood takes exception to those statistics. M’Evie Mead, director of policy and organizing for Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri, points out that it operates 12 health-care clinics in the state, with only one providing abortions.
Mead also contends that the “defunding” proposal is actually just a move to restrict Medicaid reimbursements to the clinics for non-abortion related services. “Medicaid insurance is for very, very low-income people in our state,” she said. “They deserve access to care …. What [legislators] are talking about is taking away care for very low-income patients at Planned Parenthood.” That care includes gynecological exams, screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and cancer, and other related medical care, she added.
If the effort to restrict those funds is successful, most of the Medicaid recipients who currently utilize those services at a Planned Parenthood clinic would need to find another service provider.
Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, said such clinics would be overwhelmed if they had to take on the thousands of patients Planned Parenthood now sees across the country. “Other agencies have admitted that,” she said. “They wouldn’t be able to shoulder that.”
“I think we could absorb some of them, but actually our space would be the main limitation. I think wait lists would be longer, even for our existing patients,” said Dr. Melissa Tepe, chief medical officer for Affinia Healthcare, which operates four health clinics in St. Louis.
In Springfield, the largest federally qualified health center is Jordan Valley Community Health Center. While the Planned Parenthood clinics in Springfield and Joplin serve a total of about 900 Medicaid patients a year, Jordan Valley serves a total of more than 31,000 Medicaid patients, some of them at its women’s health clinics.
Not all areas served by Planned Parenthood clinics have a federally qualified health center as an option. A 2016 Guttmacher Institute survey of clients at Title X–funded health centers across the country showed that 26 percent of clients at a Planned Parenthood site reported that it was the only place they could get the services they need.
But Mudd, 20, a senior business major from Troy, sees it as a moral issue. “As someone who works and pays taxes, my money will no longer go to something that I don’t support, and that’s a big deal,” she said.
“A Significant Burden for Women”
Missouri has some of the most restrictive laws concerning abortion care in the country, leaving only one abortion clinic open in the state. Its Republican legislature has even more restrictions awaiting passage, thanks to the election of “a lot of pro-life candidates” with help from the local chapter of Missouri Right to Life, said Dave Plemmons, co-chair of that group.
“We’ve been trying to get a clinic regulation bill passed the last couple of years,” said Plemmons. Such a bill would require annual inspections of clinics and an accounting of all disposition of fetal tissue. But as a 2013 Rewire investigation found, abortion is already highly regulated in the United States.
Funding has been at the heart of previous legislation. In 2016, it was one of the drivers of legislative efforts, Plemmons said. “State funds are being allocated to alternatives to abortion agencies on an increased level. That is a very positive step,” he said. The renewal of tax credits for those same anti-abortion pregnancy centers is another, he added.
It was a piece of state legislation in 2005 that led three Planned Parenthood locations in Missouri to shut down their abortion care services, including the clinic in Springfield. The law requires all abortion clinics to have a doctor with admitting privileges at a hospital within a 30-mile radius.
That provision has been challenged in court by Planned Parenthood after the U.S. Supreme Court shot down an identical provision in Texas, as well as the requirement that any clinic providing abortions meet the minimum standards for ambulatory surgical centers. Last year, the Court found the provisions to be “medically unnecessary.” If both of those provisions were dropped in Missouri, Planned Parenthood would consider opening clinics that provide abortions in Columbia, Kansas City, Springfield, and Joplin, Mead said.
Dreith said that 30 anti-choice pieces of legislation have been filed already this year, a number that is common each year. “Missouri became the third most restrictive state in 2014 when it passed the 72-hour waiting period,” she said. With the only clinic offering abortions located in St. Louis, “that creates a significant burden for women,” especially low-income women from other areas of the state who must take time off work to travel an average of 150 miles, “be shamed for their decision,” wait 72 hours, and then travel back to St. Louis.
Dreith challenged #ProtestPP and Right to Life’s assertion that the goal is to redirect Medicaid funds to federally qualified health centers because those clinics provide contraception. “Their ultimate goal is to shut down this last remaining clinic,” she said. “The language denies any health-care provider that provides abortion or information about abortion. That includes some hospitals …. If the [state] legislature continues that maneuver … I think it would be devastating to women’s access to reproductive health care.”