On Friday, the House successfully passed a bill freezing funding for Planned Parenthood for the following year to give it time to investigate the series of sting videos targeting the venerable reproductive health provider. While the bill won’t go into law—there’s no way it can make it through the Senate and the president would veto if it did—it’s a troubling sign for social services and public health in the United States.
The attacks on Planned Parenthood are about a lot of things (the War on Women certainly among them), but it is also about a larger war on social services in America and the conservative belief that the government shouldn’t be providing health care, mental health benefits, addiction treatment, disability services, and a host of other social supports to residents.
This isn’t just a women’s issue, as it has been historically framed: This is an issue that affects people of all genders—because the need for social services can arise at any time.
The bill was introduced by Diane Black (R-Tenn.), and it passed almost entirely down the middle of the House, with five notable exceptions: Republicans Richard Hanna of New York, Charles Dent of Pennsylvania, and Bob Dole of Illinois all voted against it, while Democrats Collin Petersen of Minnesota and Daniel Lipinski of Illinois voted for it. All 22 of the Republican women in the House voted “aye.”
The House defunded Planned Parenthood, which will cause exponentially more unwanted pregnancies & exponentially more abortions.— Sarah Silverman (@SarahKSilverman) September 21, 2015
actually in awe that people think defunding planned parenthood is what our country needs to be focusing on right now. you have to be joking— kay (@kaydargs) September 21, 2015
That this vote occurs in the context of the ongoing war against Planned Parenthood—and in a Congressional session timed perfectly with an election—isn’t a mistake. Conservatives want to destroy Planned Parenthood, and they also want to send the message to voters that they can, should the electorate vote enough of them into office.
But this is not just about Planned Parenthood and the escalating tensions over abortion and reproductive justice in the United States. The stakes are much, much higher, because Republicans want to defund any and all social services, gutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other vital government programs that create a safety net for our most vulnerable and in need. Battles over social services funding have been happening for decades, and this is a warning sign that the pressure is on.
While the bill won’t go into law—there’s no way it can make it through the Senate and the president would veto if it did—it’s a troubling sign for social services and public health in the United States.
This year, Republicans are threatening a government shutdown over, among other things, Planned Parenthood funding. In 2013, they successfully shut down the government for 16 days—at a cost of $24 billion—over the Affordable Care Act, illustrating how serious they are about dismantling the once robust social services net in the United States. Also in 2013, Republicans gutted the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Conservatives have an older beef than that, though. Using anti-social services rhetoric, they successfully shifted funds to “faith-based organizations” during the most recent Bush Administration. In fact, his very first executive order was the creation of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Bush, as with many other conservatives, believes that social services should be provided by communities, specifically church communities, rather than the government. Despite the fact that this is an inefficient way of delivering such services, it’s a popular approach to social supports sometimes referred to as the “charity model.” Rather than treating social services as a human right, it positions them as a charity to be handed out at whim to the deserving poor, which is an extremely dangerous precedent to set.
Notably, funds provided by the government to faith-based groups are often used in a discriminatory fashion, as when Catholic hospitals refuse to perform abortions or homeless shelters won’t admit applicants unless they sit down for a sermon.
Social services provide a host of benefits for all of us that Republicans want to take away. They support older adults after retirement. They help disabled people live independently. They help parents care for their children. They support people who cannot afford health care. They drive public health initiatives. They offer outreach and education on a variety of topics from sexual health to accident prevention to financial literacy. They step in with emergency funding for victims of natural disasters.
On a greater level, they fund schooling, medical research, roads, firefighting personnel, hospitals, and the social framework many Americans rely upon daily. They are there with hospice for the dying. They watch over the welfare of children.
Advocates for social services argue that in a just society, they should be provided to all without discrimination and with respect to need. Republicans do not feel this way. Conservative extremists believe the government shouldn’t provide any social services funding, while many moderates support significant cutbacks.
Rather than treating social services as a human right, it positions them as a charity to be handed out at whim to the deserving poor.
As we’ve already seen, limiting such funding has a tremendously detrimental effect on society, especially in marginalized communities—blocking services makes it hard for working class people to obtain opportunities for higher education, for example. The Congressional Budget Office has already warned that defunding Planned Parenthood will result in “thousands” of unplanned pregnancies. Supporting equality by ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are met, on the other hand, results in a higher quality of life for all.
This is a test case, and the conservatives will be pushing the envelope further and further, especially if they successfully gain control of Congress and the White House in 2016. Planned Parenthood urgently needs our support—but so does the very concept of social services. Do we want to be a nation where each receives according to their needs, or one where people are left to die at the hands of social service cuts? Many of us will live long enough to collect Social Security, and others will have other social service needs over the course of their lives.
Cuts to social services hurt everyone, and they need to be a part of the conversation around Planned Parenthood. Republicans aren’t just upping the stakes: They’re also moving the bar. To respond adequately, we need to change the conversation.
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S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator who serves as the social justice editor for xoJane and has been published in the Guardian and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.
Illustration by Max Fleishman