The Female Face Behind the Senate’s Bill to Defund Planned Parenthood

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Joni Ernst is the public face behind GOP effort in the Senate to defund Planned Parenthood in reaction to the controversial videos released over the past few weeks. But how would this bill, if passed, affect her home state of Iowa? (Photo: Getty Images)

Joni Ernst, the junior senator from Iowa, first burst onto the public scene in March 2014 during her campaign for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. A state senator at the time, she quickly gained national attention for a TV ad in which she explained to Iowa voters, “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”

Ernst smiles casually while saying this, with an image of pigs running in the background. “Washington’s full of big spenders,” she says at the end of the video. “Let’s make ’em squeal.”

Now, Ernst, R-Iowa, has become the public face of the GOP effort in the Senate to defund Planned Parenthood in reaction to the controversial videos released over the past few weeks by the antiabortion activist group Center for Medical Progress — an anti-abortion groupwhich alleges that Planned Parenthood is profiting from the sale of fetal tissue donation.

The bill will be debated by the Senate on Monday, with a vote coming as early as this evening.

While fetal tissue donation is a long-standing and legal component of American medical research, many Republicans, like Ernst, are using the videos as the latest battle cry of many in the party’s opposition of abortion.

The Bill to Defund Planned Parenthood would end all federal funding through Title X to Planned Parenthood affiliate clinics nationwide — money specifically restricted from funding abortion services and used for some of the most successful government-funded programs nationwide. Title X is the only federal grant program dedicated solely to providing individuals with comprehensive family planning services and related reproductive health services. Ninety percent of the people Title X serves have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and 63 percent are uninsured. Six in 10 women who access health care services from a Title X-funded health center consider this their main source of health care.

Funded at $286 million for fiscal year 2015, Title X provides huge savings to the American taxpayers. For every public dollar invested in family planning, the American taxpayer saves approximately $7 in Medicaid-related costs. Nearly half of all births in the U.S. are paid for by Medicaid, the health care program for low-income families and individuals; the average national cost for one Medicaid-covered birth is $12,770. This is a stark contrast to the $239 per-client cost of publicly funded contraceptive care through Title X family planning. It is estimated, then, that Title X saves taxpayers nearly $7 billion a year.

Related: State Probes Find Zero Planned Parenthood Violations As Antiabortion Group Is Sued Over Undercover Videos

In a statement regarding her sponsorship of the legislation that has since garnered co-sponsorship from thirty-two of Ernst’s fellow Republicans in the Senate, Ernst said, “The American people are horrified by these videos as well. Simply put, this legislation ensures that funding for women’s health is protected and that taxpayer dollars will not go to Planned Parenthood.”

Ernst’s office says that the funds that would no longer be made available to Planned Parenthood will continue to be offered to other eligible entities, such as state and local health departments and community health centers, to provide women’s health care services, and that there will be no reduction in overall federal funding for women’s health.

Ernst seems to have overlooked, however, that perhaps the American people would be more horrified to understand the ramifications of cutting off Title X funding for Planned Parenthood, especially in Ernst’s home state of Iowa.

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(Photo: Getty Images)

“Thousands of Iowan women and men use Planned Parenthood for family planning services, cervical cancer screenings, STD testing — suddenly yanking Planned Parenthood out of the healthcare system? Well, it would be extremely difficult to replace them,” says Jodi Tomlonovic, the executive director of the Family Planning Council of Iowa. “Other [Title X-funded] clinics are already stressed. … This would decrease access for many Iowans. It would take so many health care providers out of our system now. It would be very difficult to replace” the role that Planned Parenthood plays in providing basic health care services in Iowa.

Related: Who Is the 26-Year-Old Man Behind the Planned Parenthood ‘Sting’ Videos?

Tomlonovic explains that contraceptive care, sexually transmitted disease [STD] testing and treatment, counseling on contraceptive options, and preconception counseling are the services most frequently used by family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood clinics, in Iowa. “A lot of clients are young, healthy adults, and all they want are family planning services,” says Tomlonovic. “They choose to go to Planned Parenthood and trust them for family planning services — they know about the quality of care, the respect for confidentiality. These are high-quality, comprehensive clinics. Trying to replace a provider of that level would be very difficult.”

This latest strike against Planned Parenthood is not Ernst’s first. As a state senator in Iowa, she voted to defund the women’s healthcare provider in April 2012 in voting for an amendment that would have barred funding for the performance of any abortion in the state of Iowa. At the same time, she also co-sponsored an amendment to the state’s health and human services appropriations bill that would bar state department receiving appropriations under the bill from distributing funds for family planning services to entities that perform abortions or operate facilities where abortions are performed. The amendment also barred the reimbursement of Medicaid and IowaCare funds used for any abortions in the state. Ernst supported amendments seeking to severely restrict abortion and family planning access for Iowans again in April of 2013.

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(Photo: Getty Images)

While campaigning for retiring Democratic Iowa senator Tom Harkin’s Senate seat in 2014, Ernst made her intention to support a federal personhood amendment a critical focus of her campaign. The measure would give an embryo the same rights as a person, and thus render abortion illegal. In a debate, Ernst went so far as so clarify that she believed that providers should be punished should a personhood amendment go into effect. (These “providers” would seem to include to reproductive endocrinologists and infertility doctors who perform in-vitro fertilization — a procedure that would be rendered illegal should federal personhood legislation pass.) Furthermore, Ernst never explicitly stated any dissent from specific parts of the proposed personhood amendment, such as the outlawing of abortions in cases of incest and rape and banning some forms of contraception — thus implying her support of such measures.

Related: Why Women Do (and Don’t) Choose Fetal Tissue Donation After Abortion

The Family Planning Council of Iowa is a Title X grantee, meaning it holds the contract with the federal government to provide family planning services. In Iowa, the Family Planning Council does not run its own clinic, but sub-contracts services out to various health care providers — including Planned Parenthood. Again, Title X funding explicitly ensures that these grants cannot be used to fund abortion; they can only be used to fund family planning services.

“Family planning services and STD services are time-sensitive,” emphasizes Tomlonovic. If Iowans — and indeed, Americans across the country — lost access to those services via Planned Parenthood, the added influx to states’ remaining family planning clinics could create delays in appointments that could have critical effects.

“Our centers say they’re already overloaded,” says Tomlonovic, “In Iowa, we have a lot of medically underserved areas. And to say, ‘Oh, those other entities could pick this up [should Planned Parenthood lose its ability to provide family planning services]’ — that’s not really true. I don’t believe that’s the case. Pulling Planned Parenthood out of medically underserved areas is not a good idea.”

In a statement, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said about the bill to defund Planned Parenthood, “It’s bad enough that Republicans are once again attacking women’s health, but it’s even more disappointing that some Republicans still haven’t learned their lesson and are threatening to shut the government down if they don’t get their way. Women don’t want the Tea Party telling them what doctors they can and can’t go to, and families across the country don’t want another completely unnecessary crisis. Democrats are going to be fighting to make sure women and families come before Republican political pandering, and not the other way around.”

“What would the impact of this bill be?” muses Tomlonovic. “I would truly make an impact in Iowa to thousands of Iowans.”

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