They successfully persuaded lawmakers and the governor to pass a law that bans Planned Parenthood and any other group that maintains an abortion facility from receiving public funding.
But the tactic is also significant because it marks a pivotal point in the pro-life movement’s efforts to restrict abortion services.
The court battle over the new Arizona law could have an impact beyond Arizona, especially if either side pursues the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Arizona law has been temporarily blocked from taking effect by a federal district court, a move that lawyers from both sides agreed upon. A hearing is scheduled on Oct. 5.
A victory for the pro-life movement would put Planned Parenthood in an even more politically precarious situation, potentially leading to renewed attacks against the organization at the federal level. A loss, on other hand, would mean going back to the drawing board in a continuing battle to shutter Planned Parenthood in Arizona.
What’s at stake?
Backed by conservative allies in key positions at the Capitol, the pro-life movement has adopted a two-pronged approach: Doubling down on efforts to make it as difficult as possible to get an abortion — hence the law to ban abortions beyond 20 weeks of gestation — while trying to decapitate the entity that has become synonymous with the procedure.
For prolife activists, it is the logical extension of their fight to ensure that no public funding ever “subsidizes” an abortion service. For Planned Parenthood and its supporters, however, the move puts in jeopardy the health of women pro-life activists say they are trying to protect.
If they lose the case, pro-choice advocates say, these women won’t have access to the same quality of reproductive health care that Planned Parenthood offers.
More specifically, some 3,000 Medicaid patients who rely on the organization would have to find that care elsewhere, the group said. Pro-choice advocates fear they would have a tough time finding it.
In its suit against the Arizona law, Planned Parenthood said several of its clinics are located in “medically underserved areas.”
This fact, together with providers’ unwillingness to offer services at low reimbursement rates, would mean the organization’s Medicaid patients will find it difficult or impossible to find an alternative, the group said.
“That,” Planned Parenthood argued, “would lead to higher rates of unintended pregnancies and transmission of sexual diseases.”
It’s an argument pro-life activists flatly reject.
The Center for Arizona Policy, the Evangelical Christian lobby that’s behind much of the socially conservative legislation at the Capitol, insists there won’t be a shortage of medical care even if Planned Parenthood weren’t around.
The center, which doesn’t offer medical services, recently posted a map to show there are 140 federally qualified health centers in Arizona from which Medicaid patients can choose.
“HB2800 is not going to stop or prevent any woman from getting health services she needs,” said Cathi Herrod, the center’s president. “It simply means that providers, other than the abortion industry, will be providing those services.”
In a way, Arizona’s decision to deny Planned Parenthood access to public funds can be viewed as the bigger prize for the pro-life movement.
While the movement isn’t ready to directly challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave women legal access to abortion, the new Arizona law has the potential to get conservatives closer to their goal of closing Planned Parenthood clinics.
It would also pose financial difficulties for Planned Parenthood — albeit the organization insists the law won’t put it out of business here since it serves only a small number of patients whose care is reimbursed by the government.
Planned Parenthood said it is poised to lose $350,000 in 12 months if the law were in place.
Additionally, the courts have, for now, become the lone avenue for Planned Parenthood and pro-choice advocates to stop state laws that target them or further restrict abortion services.
That’s because even if more pro-choice candidates are elected to the Legislature, any effort to undo laws they oppose will likely face opposition from Gov. Jan Brewer, who’s in charge until 2014.
Caught in the culture wars
The proposal to defund Planned Parenthood in Arizona came on the heels of failed efforts by pro-life activists to convince Congress last year to deny the organization federal funding. At one point, it also involved targeting the entire aid for family planning, known as Title X.
Once the effort faltered, it popped up in states, where it met more success. Similar legislation has since been approved in Kansas, Indiana and Texas.
In Arizona, the political winds began to favor the pro-life movement in 2009, when Democrat Janet Napolitano, then governor, decided to leave Arizona to join President Barack Obama’s Cabinet. Brewer succeeded Napolitano and proved to be an enthusiastic ally of social conservatives.
During her term, a staccato of anti-abortion bills, pro-religion measures and other socially conservative proposals became law. Soon enough, Arizona found itself deeper in the trenches of the so-called culture wars.
But something else happened in 2010, and that, according to the Guttmacher Institute, made the political atmosphere even better for prolife activists.
“A lot of this stems back to the elections in November 2010, where across state houses and in governorships, very conservative candidates became lawmakers,” said Elizabeth Nash, a researcher with the Institute.
“And so starting in January 2011, we really saw a huge increase in the number of abortion restrictions being considered in state houses, and at the same time, we started to see attacks on family planning and also around sex education,” Nash said, adding that they’re all part of the same “wave.”
That “wave” was clearly palpable in Arizona, where Republicans secured supermajority control of the state House and Senate.
But the Republican Party has also been changing, with more influence now being wielded by its most conservative members. Subsequently, conservatives have been gaining a bigger platform to push their agenda.
Dan Pochoda, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, summed up the pro-life movement at the Capitol, saying: “Now, it’s free reign.”
A strategy that works
For now, the pro-life movement has the upper hand, a situation that’s unlikely to get reversed any time soon.
And the movement’s string of successes reaffirmed a strategy that has worked for pro-life activists for years. That is to cultivate strong allies in local policy-making bodies and to work incrementally, but incessantly, toward their goal.
Indeed, pro-life activists in Arizona already made it illegal for public dollars to pay for an abortion many years ago. Then in 2010, they followed up with a law that precludes the use of public funds to pay for health insurance policies that include abortion-related benefits, except in narrow cases.
This year, they deployed the argument that voters don’t want their dollars to pay for abortion services — in any way.
“Whether it’s direct or indirect, the point is taxpayers who have strong views about abortion should not have to be funding those,” said Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, a key ally of the pro-life movement.
“I think it’s logically consistent to say if we’re not going to use taxpayers’ funds to do this, then we shouldn’t use them in an indirect fashion,” he said.
But Planned Parenthood and its affiliate in Arizona have repeatedly rejected the claim that the funds it gets for cancer screening, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and other health services go to subsidize abortion.
The assertion, said Theresa Ulmer, a lobbyist for the local Planned Parenthood, was a useful political tool — but had no factual basis.
“They’re politicizing women’s health care for their own political gain. There’s no government money that goes to abortion. Never had,” she said.
The organization has also been pressing the point that abortion services only make up a small percentage of the programs they offer — about 3 percent nationally, compared to 14.5 percent for cancer screening and nearly 40 percent for sexually transmitted disease testing.
It will likely take several months for the courts to decide whether the state can legally make Planned Parenthood and other entities that offer abortion services ineligible to get Medicaid funding. For now, the court has temporarily allowed Planned Parenthood to continue to serve Medicaid patients for other services without having to attest that it doesn’t carry out abortions.
Erik Twist, chairman of Arizona Right Life, said to say the pro-life movement is going after Planned Parenthood is to miss the point.
“We’re in favor of any legislation that… moves in the direction of eradicating abortion, whether it would be in states throughout the union or locally here, in Arizona,” he said.