During a panel discussion on women’s health at last Thursday’s TribLive symposium on health care, state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said that taking Planned Parenthood “out of the equation” has made having conversations about women’s health care in the Texas Legislature a lot easier.
The ease of these conversations is a matter of debate. The reduction in state funds to Planned Parenthood was a bitter bill to swallow for many women's health care advocates, given what has been a prolonged, often nasty, fight against Planned Parenthood.
But Hughes is at least half right: The marginalization of Planned Parenthood probably makes the discussion of women’s health care less contentious — among Republicans, anyway. According to our May 2012 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 63 percent of Republicans held an unfavorable opinion of Planned Parenthood — 50 percent of those being very unfavorable. So for Republican legislators serious about addressing women’s health, removing Planned Parenthood as a provider in 2012 has made dealing with the Women’s Health Program less politically treacherous, and no doubt played a role in securing the additional $100 million the program will receive in the 2014-15 biennium.
The prohibition on Planned Parenthood receiving public dollars is, not surprisingly, much more of a problem for Democrats. As much as Republicans hold negative views of Planned Parenthood, Democrats hold even more positive ones. Seventy-seven percent of Democrats held favorable attitudes toward Planned Parenthood in the May 2012 UT/TT Poll, 51 percent of those very favorable.
The creation of a tight link between women’s health issues and abortion access by conservatives over the last two decades has played a major role in the decision to exclude Planned Parenthood as a provider of state-sponsored women’s health services. But even with Planned Parenthood out of the legislative spotlight, bills filed this session pick up where the mandatory ultrasound left off. From the so-called fetal pain bill, to requiring that abortion providers meet ambulatory care standards, to the imposition that doctors personally administer the two-drug abortion cocktail over a 24-hour period and provide a follow-up consultation within 14 days, abortion restrictions remain on the agenda for social conservatives.
Yet the lack of a ready-made foil in Planned Parenthood in conjunction with a public that doesn’t overwhelmingly oppose the procedure has meant less immediate success for abortion rights opponents. Despite the centrality of abortion to the agenda of social conservatives, only 22 percent of Republicans endorse a complete prohibition, according to the February UT/TT Poll, while 66 percent of Democrats believe that a woman should always be able to legally obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice. As in previous sessions, the complexity of public opinion on abortion access has no doubt made passing these measures increasingly complicated, even more so as the leadership has enforced a legislative focus on the session’s “big issues” – the budget, infrastructure and education. In political terms, at least, the social conservatives in the Legislature may find they actually wish they still had Planned Parenthood to kick around.
Tribune pollster Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas at Austin. Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project.