On September 6, Congress again failed to approve a federal response to the Zika virus after Republicans included a legislative “poison pill” designed to exclude Planned Parenthood from funding -- echoing the false right-wing media argument that the reproductive health organization is not an essential health care provider.
The bogus assertion that Planned Parenthood is inessential has been a right-wing media staple, frequently adopted by anti-choice legislators attempting to defund the organization. In particular, since the release of deceptively edited videos from the discredited Center for Medical Progress, anti-choice legislators have repeated the inaccurate right-wing media talking point that federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) or community health centers can effectively fill the gap left by denying Planned Parenthood access to funding and resources.
After the failed Zika vote, The Daily Signal justified the anti-Planned Parenthood rider, arguing that Democrats were needlessly obstructing funding because, “In reality, clinics affiliated with Planned Parenthood … are limited in the services they can provide in the fight against Zika” while many community health centers are “ready [and able] to ramp up efforts against Zika.”
To support this position, The Daily Signal cited evidence from a number of anti-abortion organizations such as the Susan B. Anthony List and the Charlotte Lozier Institute. It also included numerous comments from Casey Mattox, a lawyer for the right-wing legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) -- which not only openly opposes abortion but also has a history of smearing the LGBT community and working to criminalize homosexuality.
According to Mattox, only FQHCs are “equipped” to handle Zika response because they have “medical professionals on staff … to diagnose and treat illness” while “Planned Parenthood does not.” In reality, Planned Parenthood health centers offer a “wide range of services” including “general health care” that is covered by Medicaid or other state safety net programs. To underscore Mattox’s argument, The Daily Signal included an ADF graphic claiming to compare the seeming differences between Planned Parenthood and FQHCs.
However, as Emma Grey Ellis noted in an August 2 article for Wired, to “actually combat Zika, you need to gain control of its vectors.” Given the sexually transmitted nature of the Zika virus and its impact on pregnant persons, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) determined that “full access to the most complete range of reproductive options,” which includes contraception and abortion, is essential to address its spread.
In an August statement to ABC News, ACOG president and CEO Dr. Hal Lawrence explained the significant role Planned Parenthood plays in Zika response. According to Lawrence, Planned Parenthood has long “provided ongoing well-woman services and contraceptives to millions … and has been oftentimes the best access for some underprivileged women to get access to contraception.”
Lawrence’s argument is further supported by previous research from the Guttmacher Institute, which found that in 103 U.S. counties, Planned Parenthood is the only “safety-net health center” accessible for those seeking contraception. Guttmacher noted that Planned Parenthood is not only a leading provider of publicly subsidized contraceptive services, but also that it can typically see more patients annually for these services than “other types of safety-net providers” can.
Planned Parenthood has played an essential role in educating the public about the the virus, including discussing how it spreads and methods of prevention. As Alex Harris reported for the Miami Herald, Planned Parenthood has launched a campaign “to spread the word about Zika prevention.” Harris continued that Planned Parenthood staff have been going “door-to-door in areas where large groups of reproductive-age women live … [who] may not have been reached by state or federal Zika education efforts.”
Furthermore, as Florida’s last attempt to defund Planned Parenthood demonstrated, classification as a FQHC doesn’t necessarily qualify a health care provider to respond to reproductive health issues like the Zika virus.
When Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that barred Planned Parenthood from accessing state Medicaid funds -- a measure that has since been temporarily blocked by a federal judge -- the list of replacement FQHCs provided by supporters was called “laughable” by Slate’s Christina Cauterucci because it was "filled with dozens of elementary and middle schools, several dental practices, and at least one optometry center.” This disparity is partly explained by the caption to ADF’s own graphic, which explains, “While every FQHC provides these services, not every FQHC delivery site offers every service listed.” In other words, although some providers may have staff and resources to address a reproductive health issue like Zika, not every FQHC will be adapted to that purpose.
Experts have confirmed that even when FQHCs and community clinics do provide reproductive health services, they are not well-positioned to fill the gap when Planned Parenthood is forced out of communities. As Sara Rosenbaum, a professor at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, wrote in an article for the Health Affairs Blog, the “claim that community health centers readily can absorb the loss of Planned Parenthood clinics amounts to a gross misrepresentation of what even the best community health centers in the country would be able to do.”
While anti-choice lawmakers recycle right-wing media misinformation to score political points by attacking Planned Parenthood, the director of the Centers for Disease Control has issued an ominous warning to Congress: “Basically, we are out of money [to respond to Zika] and we need Congress to act. The cupboard is bare.”