Women caught in the middle of abortion fight

It would be easier to understand the Women's Health Program fight between state officials and Planned Parenthood if people from both sides would stop their high-pitched hyperbole.

The fight centers on abortion, and that alone is enough to send emotions flying. It's important.

Texas wants to shut out Planned Parenthood clinics from funding for services under the program because other, financially separate Planned Parenthood facilities provide elective abortions.

If the state succeeds, about 50,000 low-income women who receive breast and cervical cancer screenings, birth control and testing for sexually transmitted infections at Planned Parenthood clinics would have to go elsewhere for those services.

Kenneth S. Lambrecht, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, says the 10 Planned Parenthood organizations in Texas are on the side of the angels.

"We will do everything possible to protect the health of women and families in Texas," he said Oct. 26 in announcing a lawsuit filed in state court in Austin.

Gov. Rick Perry, who leads the fight against Planned Parenthood, says the same thing. He also says if the suit is successful it "would kill this program, and [Planned Parenthood] would be responsible for denying these important health services to the low-income women of Texas."

The judge who will hear that suit issued an injunction Thursday that will keep the program going, with Planned Parenthood in it, for now.

Texas created the Women's Health Program in 2005 and convinced federal Medicaid officials to pay 90 percent of its cost starting Jan. 1, 2007. From the beginning, elective abortions, affiliates of abortion providers and advocating abortion as a means of birth control have been banned from the program. Federal funding also excludes elective abortions.

The state didn't pursue a ban on abortion affiliates until the Legislature reauthorized the program last year. Then the Department of State Health Services drafted rules to enforce the ban.

The same thing is happening in several other states, a political attack on Planned Parenthood.

Federal officials said banning providers based on the services they or their affiliates offer is against Medicaid guidelines. They said the new Texas rules meant Medicaid funds would be withdrawn from the Women's Health Program beginning as soon as Nov. 1.

Perry said Texas would fund the program. Researchers at George Washington University reported Oct. 11 that the extra state cost would be between $23 million and $27 million a year.

The governor seems determined to follow through. He and state Health Commissioner Kyle Janek say they've lined up plenty of providers for the new state-financed program, enough to take over Planned Parenthood's patient load. Some opponents argue that there won't be enough providers in some areas.

Up to this point, nobody's won -- but neither has anybody done anything wrong. Texas has a right to "disfavor" abortion in programs it funds, said an Aug. 21 ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The state also can ban entities that use a "brand name, trademark, service mark, or other registered identification mark" also used by an entity that provides elective abortions.

That sinks Planned Parenthood's federal case, and the organization has decided not to fight in that venue.

Instead, it filed the state suit saying a portion of Texas law forbids the recent changes if they would mean the loss of Medicaid funds.

But that legal angle doesn't carry very far. Even if Planned Parenthood has a winning argument in the state case, the Legislature could change the pertinent state law as soon as January.

The new state-funded program can't start until the courtroom drama ends. Federal officials have pushed the Medicaid cutoff date to Dec. 31.

Eventually, Perry has the upper hand. If the Legislature that passed the abortion affiliate ban in the first place stands behind the governor and Texas pays the bill for a new Women's Health Program, Planned Parenthood will be out.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram / Arlington and Northeast Tarrant County.


Twitter: @mnorman9