WASHINGTON (RNS)—Undeterred by solid Democratic gains in November’s national elections, religious conservatives who oppose abortion are going on the offensive with a new weapon—a sick economy.
In its largest-ever state-based initiative, the Family Research Council is contacting every state lawmaker in the country with a plea to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood , one of the nation’s largest providers of family planning and abortion services.
The anti-abortion advocates’ argument is fairly simple. Lots of organizations need public money now, but Planned Parenthood—with a $1 billion budget and a $114 million operating surplus—isn’t one of them.
“Planned Parenthood has proven that they don’t need federal or state handouts,” said Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the Washington-based Family Research Council.
“During these economic times, when states are rethinking their investments, subsidizing abortion is probably not the kind of thing that they want to be known for.”
Planned Parenthood long has been a favorite target for abortion opponents, who chafe at the $337 million the organization receives from public sources to help run 880 clinics nationwide.
States are the center of the action because 17 state legislatures permit their funds to be used for abortions. Federal funds, by contrast, can support only non-abortion services, such as counseling and birth control.
Basing the defunding argument on a dour economy represents a new wrinkle in a long-term strategy, according to Ted Jelen, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies attitudes toward abortion.
Critics of abortion increasingly seek allies by appealing to other value systems—outrage over the grotesque image of a late-term abortion, for example, or now, a belt-tightening eagerness to purge unnecessary spending during an economic crisis, he said.
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“Most people are pro-choice under at least some circumstances,” Jelen said. “So the idea that, ‘Maybe we can’t afford this in tough economic times,’ might be fairly plausible.”
Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, is tuning up an economic argument of its own.
“Public funding of family planning services is an investment in prevention care that has numerous dividends,” said Tait Sye, spokes-person for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in an e-mailed statement. “Cutting public funding of family planning is bad public policy, will leave even more women without access to vital health care services, and will lead to increased health care costs for the state.”
The Family Research Council recently launched its lawmaker outreach campaign after staffers noticed cash-strapped local governments in Florida, Georgia and Texas cutting funds for Planned Parenthood. If budget concerns could prevail in those locales, activists figured, then maybe the same could happen in statehouses from coast to coast.
Other conservative Christian groups are mobilizing, too. The American Life League of Stafford, Va., has re-ordered its political priorities this year to focus primarily on defunding Planned Parenthood, said Jim Sedlak, director of the organization’s Stop Planned Parenthood project.
In his view, the GOP’s steep losses in November do not necessarily suggest Americans have warmed to abortion rights.
“This (election) battle wasn’t about abortion, or pro-life or moral values. This election was all about the economy,” Sedlak said.
“I don’t think you can take a message from the election in terms of the moral fight over abortion. … Things are going our way, and this election was an aberration for other reasons.”
Still, anti-abortion activists face logistical and political hurdles. State funding often gets channeled through agencies or local governments, which then may subcontract with Planned Parenthood affiliates for services. That means cutting money for Planned Parenthood isn’t as simple as dropping a single line item in a state budget bill.
“We’re trying to understand exactly how much funding in the Commonwealth of Kentucky is going to Planned Parenthood,” said David Edmunds, policy analyst at the Family Foundation of Kentucky in Lexington.
“We have to determine that first before we have any kind of action strategy to try to defund it.”