Other Voices

In Texas, attacking science has hurt women’s health care

The Good Friday Rosary Vigil for Life drew crowds March 25 at Planned Parenthood in southwest Fort Worth.
The Good Friday Rosary Vigil for Life drew crowds March 25 at Planned Parenthood in southwest Fort Worth. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

What do some politicians and special interests do when scientific evidence contradicts their political agendas? They attack the researchers.

First, tobacco companies attacked scientists who revealed the many health harms caused by smoking. Next, fossil fuel companies went after researchers who provided evidence that human use of carbon fuels is changing the climate.

And now politicians are denouncing experts whose data expose the health consequences of limiting access to reproductive health care.

In 2013, Texas legislators cut funds for family planning clinics run by Planned Parenthood, but the federal government refused to allow them to limit choices for Medicaid patients.

So Texas sidestepped this regulation by setting up its own state-funded family planning program without the Planned Parenthood clinics. Legislators asserted that women on Medicaid would still be able to get care.

Researchers from the University of Texas and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission decided to look at contraceptive use and births to Medicaid patients in the years before and after the exclusion of Planned Parenthood.

They found that in counties that had lost access to Planned Parenthood clinics, fewer women used long-acting birth control and more of these women got pregnant.

Instead of responding to this evidence by considering how to improve the situation, several Texas politicians criticized the study and condemned the researchers for revealing facts that contradicted their claims that the new program would provide care as well as Planned Parenthood had.

They were outraged that two researchers employed by the Health and Human Services Commission had functioned as true public servants — reviewing public data to evaluate the health impact of public policy.

Threatened with punishment, one of those researchers has now retired.

In the cases of cigarettes and fossil fuel, the attacks on science are presumably motivated by a desire to keep making profits. What motivates the politicians who denounce scientific evidence about reproductive health?

Clearly, many of them are opposed to abortion. The eyes of the nation are currently on Texas as the Supreme Court decides whether the state’s medically unnecessary requirements for abortion clinics create undue burdens for women seeking legal care.

Defunding family planning clinics has nothing to do with abortion. In fact, it makes abortion more likely as the lack of contraception leads to unintended pregnancies.

Texas certainly has not enacted policies that would support poor mothers. The state has a very low minimum wage, no paid family leave, no earned income or dependent care tax credits, and has rejected the Medicaid expansion offered by the Affordable Care Act.

Americans hold a wide range of opinions about regulating industries, poverty and reproductive decisions and services. So let’s argue straightforwardly about our political disagreements rather than cover up the science and evidence that could inform these debates.

It is the responsibility of public employees to scrutinize public data to inform public policy. In Texas, the scientists who did so got hurt. So did poor women.

Dr. Wendy Chavkin is a physician and public health researcher at Columbia University.