The need to ensure widespread access to reproductive health services was once an issue that united Republicans and Democrats in Washington. Now it’s an issue that divides them.
And it will take lawmakers known for their ability to mediate and collaborate – like Maine’s moderate Republican senator, Susan Collins – to work to resolve this split and make sure that political posturing doesn’t deprive millions of women of effective, low-cost care.
In the cross hairs is Title X, the only federal program devoted to providing low-income Americans with birth control and related reproductive health services, such as prenatal, post-partum and well-child checkups, and breast and cervical cancer and sexually transmitted disease screenings.
The program was created in 1970, enacted with the support of lawmakers from both major parties and signed into law by a Republican president, Richard Nixon. It didn’t become a focus of partisan rancor until 2011, when House Republicans tried to cut off funding for the program.
Title X survived that time but is now again at risk of being eliminated, as part of a fiscal year 2016 budget proposal put forth last week by the Republican-dominated House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services.
At issue? Abortion. Though, as spelled out in federal law, Title X funds may not be used to pay for abortions, the program does subsidize some Planned Parenthood clinics that also offer abortion services.
This convoluted line of reasoning ignores the facts about Title X:
• It’s effective: Between 1980 and 2000, Title X-funded clinics conducted nearly 60 million Pap tests, resulting in the early detection of up to 55,000 cases of cervical cancer. They also helped women prevent nearly 20 million unintended pregnancies, about 9 million of which would have resulted in an abortion.
In fact, “the number of abortions in the U.S. will actually increase should the Title X family planning program be scrapped,” public health researcher Sean Philpott-Jones concluded in a recent essay for the public radio network WAMC.
• It’s inexpensive: The program’s budget amounted to about $300 million last year, or a modest $60 for each of the 5 million people (around 23,000 in Maine) it serves nationwide.
• It saves money: For every $1 in government money spent on family planning programs and providers, taxpayers actually save $7.09 that would have been spent on the Medicaid-supported prenatal care and births resulting from unplanned pregnancies.
Most patients at Title X clinics are uninsured women who have incomes at or below poverty level and don’t qualify for Medicaid. Nearly two-thirds have no other source of primary care – and that situation isn’t likely to improve in Maine and the 18 other states that have resisted expanding Medicaid eligibility.
The good news? Maine’s influential senior senator, Susan Collins, is a strong proponent of family planning. She came out against fellow Republicans’ 2011 effort to defund Title X, citing the program’s ability to contain health care costs.
We urge Collins, a member of the Appropriations Committee and a lawmaker skilled at forging legislative alliances, to call on her caucus leaders to protect Title X and reject efforts to ax or further reduce funding for the program – which has been the target of significant cuts in the past five years. For the sake of the health of women in Maine and across the country, ideology shouldn’t be allowed to trump compassion, science and common sense.