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September 28, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Why we should all care that Texas is 'dismantling' women's health

I just moved back from Texas, so I'm a bit sensitive about political stories coming out of the Lone Star state. During my time there, I covered a lot of stories about women's health. (Here's a link to a series I worked on last spring about the battle over family planning. Please note that I was a news reporter at the time for a non-partisan media organization.)

This week, my former Texas Tribune colleague, Becca Aaronson, wrote about new research featured in the New England Journal of Medicine's latest edition that reports mass clinic closures statewide and increased costs for women who have no other means to pay for preventive services.

How did we get here? Last year, the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature voted to reduce family planning funding by two-thirds over the next biennium, from $111 million to $37.9 million. That's a 66 percent cut. What program can sustain such a sudden reduction? Already, more than 50 clinics have shut down.

In their article for the country's preeminent medical journal, a team of researchers based at the University of Texas at Austin offered a sobering assessment of what's happening statewide:

Ostensibly, the purpose of the law was to defund Planned Parenthood in an attempt to limit access to abortion, even though federal and state funding cannot be used for abortion care anyway. Instead, these policies are limiting women's access to a range of preventive reproductive health services and screenings. Disadvantaged women must choose between obtaining contraception and meeting other immediate economic needs. And, as one of our interviewees pointed out, providers are put in the position of “trying to decide, out of the most vulnerable, who is the most, most vulnerable.” Moreover, the impact of these policies is not limited to Planned Parenthood; other organizations have had to close clinics, reduce hours, and lay off dedicated, experienced staff members. We are witnessing the dismantling of a safety net that took decades to build and could not easily be recreated even if funding were restored soon.

I'll be looking more into how women's health services are provided in Washington, but I think it's worth warning everyone that what happens in Texas can happen anywhere else. We've seen numerous states (and even the federal government) try to follow suit and defund family planning by targeting Planned Parenthood, including efforts in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Lost in this supposed battle over abortion is the fact that family planning encompasses so many other life-saving services, from contraceptives and STD testing to breast and cervical cancer screenings.

And what are the consequences of cutting off family planning funds to women in a state like Texas? The Legislature's own non-partisan budget team predicts at least 20,000 additional Medicaid births, for one thing. We'll have to wait and see whether that actually happens. The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health has reported higher-than-normal rates of diagnoses and death from cervical cancer along the Texas-Mexico border. It's worth noting that cervical cancer is treatable if detected early. The greater challenge is convincing women to get screened in the first place.

So why do I care about this issue so much, even though I'm no longer living in Austin?

Overall, the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities points to Census data that shows the U.S. added 2 million kids in the last 10 years-- half of that growth came from Texas. One in 11 kids in the U.S. is a Texan. They're growing up in an education system that lawmakers underfunded this biennium by $5.4 billion. The textbooks they're learning from are highly controversial. Public schools only teach abstinence, even as the teen pregnancy rate ranks 4th in the nation.

For now, Texas is responsible for all those kids. But someday, they will grow up. Like me, they may even head to the Pacific Northwest. Therefore, I believe we all have an interest in ensuring that Texas women are healthy and become parents when they are ready. I admire those who choose to follow through with an unplanned pregnancy and become parents. But in too many cases, the consequences can be disastrous. I'll never forget the experience of walking through an emergency shelter in San Antonio that was filled to capacity with abused and neglected children. The executive director told me it was a daily struggle to convince some kids they didn't have to stuff their pockets with food.

Many opponents of family planning in Texas say they made the tough decision to reduce funding because of budget woes. Others deny birth control works. Most Republicans in the Legislature accuse Planned Parenthood of using the funds to prop up their abortion services. It's all balderdash — claims based on political ideology over reason and science.

Federal studies have shown that for every dollar the state invests in family planning, more than $3 is saved. Helping women plan and space their pregnancies often means that they and their children will not be born into subsidized health care or have to rely on the state for basic nutrition needs. It's a way to break the cycle of poverty, promote self-sufficiency and save taxpayers' money in the long run.

None of those arguments seem to resonate with the majority of lawmakers in Texas who claim to be proud Republicans, though. That's really too bad, because I don't see anything remotely fiscally conservative or compassionate about denying low-income women access to cancer screenings and birth control. I worry that Gov. Rick Perry's state will find this out the hard way.

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