Planned Parenthood provides health care for millions of women in the US — we can't defund them

As a doctor, public health leader and the president of Planned Parenthood, I am driven by the belief that health care is a fundamental human right.

This belief is often challenged, especially by those in power. But this week delivered a victory for anyone who shares my strongly held conviction that all people deserve access to affordable health care: The Supreme Court allowed lower court rulings to stand in Medicaid “defunding” cases, meaning Medicaid patients in Kansas and Louisiana can continue to rely on Planned Parenthood for birth control, cancer screenings and STD testing and treatment.

ADVERTISEMENT

The stakes of these cases cannot be overstated.

For many of our patients, Planned Parenthood is not only their chosen health-care provider, we’re the only health-care provider available to them. In 67 percent of counties in the U.S., safety-net clinics would have to double their capacity in order to make up for Planned Parenthood patients. In Louisiana, Planned Parenthood health centers served nearly 70 percent of female contraceptive patients in 2015. In Kansas, more than 188,000 women qualified for publicly funded family planning services in 2014.

To take away their right to choose Planned Parenthood effectively takes away their right to health care. Unless, of course, they can afford private health insurance or to pay out of pocket. Let’s be clear: These attempts to limit access to Planned Parenthood are an effort to discriminate against people with low incomes, many of whom already face barriers to care because of any number of discriminatory policies.  

As a doctor, I’ve seen what happens when politics gets in the way of people making their own health-care choices, when people cannot access the care they need. I’ve seen a patient who waited over a year to get a lump in her breast checked by a doctor — not because she feared what she’d find out, but because she feared being unable to pay for a medical visit without health insurance. When she finally came in, it was too late: The cancer had spread throughout her body. Had we caught the cancer earlier, she might be alive today. But a lack of access to care robbed her of her life.

From a public health perspective, we already know what happens when politicians block access to care at Planned Parenthood. In Iowa, STD rates skyrocketed after politicians forced Planned Parenthood to close four health centers.

In Texas, the state’s own numbers show that 30,000 fewer women accessed services after the state blocked women from Planned Parenthood health centers. These are the real-life consequences of politicians preventing doctors like me from doing our jobs, which is to respect our patients and provide them with the best possible evidence-based health care.  

Thankfully, because of the Supreme Court’s actions this week, patients in Louisiana and Kansas can still come to Planned Parenthood for the health care they need. That’s certainly something  worth celebrating. But the Supreme Court’s decision is a reflection of the Medicaid statute’s clear parameters: Politicians cannot just decide where Medicaid patients can and cannot go to get health care.

What’s more, November’s elections show the American people want more health care, not less. Solidly red states like Nebraska, Idaho and Utah voted to expand Medicaid. Poll after poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly support Planned Parenthood. Nationwide, one in five women will get health care at Planned Parenthood in her lifetime. I did and so did my sister and my mother.

This week, we can breathe a sigh of relief that our patients in Kansas and Louisiana will continue to receive the care they deserve and need. But this victory should not be read as a decision of what’s to come. A decision not to take a hearing should not be read as a decision in favor in women’s health and rights. This new Supreme Court, with Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughSecond ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Supreme Court hands Virginia Democrats a win in gerrymandering case MORE as a new justice, could result in a situation where Roe v. Wade is overturned or further eroded, endangering abortion access for women across the country.

When that happens — and it will — we must be ready to fight.

As president of Planned Parenthood, I pledge to fight with everything I have to keep our doors open to the 8,000 people who come to us for care every single day. I pledge to fight with everything I have to protect access to contraception, keep abortion safe and legal and to work towards a world where all people can access the health care they need — no matter who they are, how much money they earn, or where they live.

Dr. Leana S. Wen is the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of American and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Follow her on twitter at @DrLeanaWen.