As a freshman congressman in a decidedly “purple” district, U.S. Rep. John Faso has had to walk a tightrope when it comes to federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
On Tuesday, April 18, the nation’s oldest women’s healthcare organization sought to make that rope a bit narrower by deploying its national front-woman and some area residents to make the case that Planned Parenthood is critical to the health and well-being of women in Faso’s 19th Congressional District.
“It’s important for members of Congress to understand that when they vote [on defunding Planned Parenthood] that’s a not a theoretical vote,” said Cecile Richards, national president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “It’s a vote to end access for thousands of people in this district to the healthcare they depend on.”
Richards is the daughter of former Texas governor and feminist icon the late Ann Richards and has become a central figure in the ongoing battle over access to women’s healthcare, including abortion. Hundreds of Planned Parenthood clinics across the country provide low-cost women’s health services, ranging from cancer and STD screening to contraception and sex education in schools.
But the group’s status as the nation’s single largest abortion provider has made it a lightning rod in the culture wars. While the group does not have a line in the federal budget, it does receive federal money in the form of Medicaid reimbursement for non-abortion services rendered. (Federal law prohibits Medicaid reimbursement or any other type of funding for abortion unless the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy.) But pro-life advocates have long argued that funneling money to the Planned Parenthood for other medical services effectively subsidizes the group’s practice of offering low-cost abortions. With Republicans now in control of the White House and both houses on Congress, anti-abortion activists are pushing hard for a federal law to bar Medicaid reimbursement for any services performed by Planned Parenthood.
Faso, a Republican from Kinderhook, won his first term running a pro-life moderate. Since taking office in January, he has sent mixed signals on Planned Parenthood funding. In January, he was caught on tape in a closed-door meeting warning fellow Republican lawmakers that defunding Planned Parenthood as part of their effort to repeal Obamacare would be read as a spiteful act that would invite a huge backlash in his district and elsewhere.
“We are just walking into a gigantic political trap if we go down this path of sticking Planned Parenthood in the health insurance bill,” said Faso. “If you want to do it somewhere else, I have no problem, but I think we are creating a political minefield for ourselves.”
In a budget committee vote, Faso voted against the defunding provision. But after he was overruled, he voted to send the finished legislation, dubbed the American Health Care Act, to the floor of Congress for a vote with the Medicaid cutoff in place. Later, Faso would say that his vote was based on the needs of his constituents and “the totality of the legislation, rather than a single provision.” The American Health Care Act was eventually pulled after GOP leaders realized that their divided House caucus could not deliver the necessary votes. Faso, meanwhile, has sought to assure constituents that he remains a solid “no” vote on defunding.
“My position on Planned Parenthood’s funding has been clearly and publicly expressed from the start,” Faso wrote in a prepared statement Wednesday. “I oppose denying Medicaid reimbursement to any organization which complies with the law and serves those eligible for the program.”
Those assurances, however, have fallen flat in the face of a surge of progressive activism in the 19th Congressional District since the election of President Donald J. Trump. At “town hall” forums organized by liberal activist groups and weekly demonstrations outside his Kingston office, protestors have sought to portray Faso as soft on his support for Planned Parenthood in particular, and women’s health in general. With Planned Parenthood recording record levels of popularity and the activist left energized, Democrats are looking at a potential wedge issue for 2018 when Faso will face re-election in a rare swing district where neither major party enjoys an overwhelming enrollment advantage.
“This is an important district,” said Richards at Tuesday’s forum. “And we don’t think he’s paying attention to his constituents.”
Richards’ visit included stops in Albany and Tuesday’s roundtable where she and Mid-Hudson Valley CEO Ruth-Ellen Blodgett enlisted care providers and patients to put a human face on the work done at four Planned Parenthood clinics in Faso’s District. Middleburgh schoolteacher Heather Kamin credited the group’s Cobleskill clinic with saving her life after she woke up one morning with abdominal pain. After her regular care provider told her she would have to wait weeks for an appointment, she was able to get a walk-in appointment at Planned Parenthood where she was diagnosed with internal bleeding caused by an ectopic pregnancy.
“If Planned Parenthood hadn’t been there that day, I might not be here today,” said Kamin. “And I know I’m not the only woman who can say that.”
Jasmine Shea, a 32 year-old student from Albany, related how Planned Parenthood had been a lifeline for her since she was 17 and visited a clinic for birth control. Since then, she said, the group has been a reliable provider of high-quality gynecological care. The clinic, she said, was crucial during periods where she had no access to other healthcare providers.
“People say [Planned Parenthood foes] are pro-life,” said Shea. “But they want to take away my healthcare so clearly they don’t care about my life.”