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Planned Parenthood firestorm sure to fuel U.S. election drama

Demonstrators hold up pro-choice signs, left, as an opposing group holds up anti-abortion signs, during a rally to protest South Dakota's new anti-abortion law outside the Federal Court building in downtown Sioux Falls, S.D., March 9, 2006.


They are perhaps the two most loaded words in American politics.

And once again, Planned Parenthood is at the centre of a firestorm.

The move Friday by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation to reverse its Wednesday decision to withhold an annual $700,000 (U.S.) grant from Planned Parenthood illustrates just how politically explosive women's health issues remain in the United States.

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"We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women's lives," Komen foundation founder and CEO Nancy Brinker said in a statement Friday morning. "We have been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood. They were not."

With its initial move to cut funding, the Komen foundation, best known for its charity walks to raise money for breast cancer research, outraged women's health advocates, set off a social media backlash and sent donations pouring in to Planned Parenthood.

If women's health is always a hot-button topic in U.S. politics, it really rears its head at election time. Democrats and Republicans seem to use it to rally their respective bases.

Both sides in the U.S. culture wars have seized on the Komen decision to drum up support. Indeed, women's health issues are more than ever at the core of U.S. politics.

Planned Parenthood, which is the largest U.S. provider of abortions, is a constant target of Republicans. All of the candidates for the party's presidential nomination vow to end the so-called Title X funding under which it gets its $80-million annual federal grant.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has been accused of making an election play for his liberal base with his move last month to require Catholic institutions, such as hospitals and universities, to include contraceptives among the preventative care benefits in employee health plans.

Republican presidential frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have attacked the move to require Catholic organizations to include contraceptive coverage in their employee health-care plans as an attack on freedom of religion.

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Catholics around the country heard about it in a letter from church leaders, read at mass last Sunday, that decried Mr. Obama's move as an assault on their First Amendment rights.

Aided by a $250,000 personal cheque from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Planned Parenthood would have more than made up for the lost grant money had the Komen foundation not reversed its decision. The money is used to help provide breast cancer screenings for low-income women.

"Politics have no place in health care," Mr. Bloomberg insisted on Thursday. "Breast cancer screening saves lives and hundreds of thousands of women rely on Planned Parenthood for access to care."

But the initial Komen decision was hailed by opponents of abortion, who argue that every cent Planned Parenthood receives from the federal government and outside groups to provide non-abortion-related services frees up money for the procedure.

Indeed, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives almost shut down the government last April over the Obama administration's insistence that a budget bill maintain $80-million in annual federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

A last-minute compromise averted a shutdown, but only after the administration agreed to specifically prohibit the use of public funds to provide abortion services in the District of Columbia.

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Since 1976, the use of federal tax dollars to fund abortions has been against the law. Planned Parenthood uses its public grant to provide other services – such as family planning counseling, contraceptives, breast cancer screening and testing for sexually transmitted infections – at the approximately 800 health centres it operates.

But critics argue the distinction is meaningless and want to end all funding to Planned Parenthood or force the agency to stop providing abortions.

The Komen foundation insisted its decision was not ideological. But in an election year, there is nothing more political than Planned Parenthood and all that it implies.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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