The Far-Reaching Medical Effects Of The GOP’s Crusade Against Planned Parenthood

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone

Hundreds of demonstrators call for defunding Planned Parenthood

The ongoing political controversy over Planned Parenthood — spurred by a video campaign that accuses the national women’s health organization of illegally selling fetal tissue — has sparked huge pro-life protests, influenced the rhetoric in the GOP presidential campaign, and now shows signs of triggering a government shutdown fight. It also threatens to have a negative ripple effect on the medical field as a whole.

Women’s health clinics and the patients they serve are certainly getting caught in the crossfire, but they aren’t the only ones. Doctors and scientists, too, may see their work compromised by new legislative efforts to target Planned Parenthood.

This dynamic is clearly on display in states like Missouri, where officials have ended all family planning contracts with Planned Parenthood in the wake of the videos. That will affect Planned Parenthood clinics’ ability to see low-income patients — and it will also affect students who are studying to become OB-GYNs.

The Missourian reported this week that Mizzou, the state’s large public research university, will end its decades-long relationship with Planned Parenthood in light of the state legislature’s move to investigate the group. As a result, medical students enrolled at Mizzou will not be able to get birth control and abortion training at local Planned Parenthood clinics.

Officials at the university say the decision will have little practical impact, since medical students haven’t worked at one of the state’s Planned Parenthood clinics since 2010. Still, it fits into a larger trend, as political controversies over abortion result in fewer options for doctors who want to get trained in pregnancy terminations. Studies have found that most medical schools aren’t providing their students with enough opportunity to learn about abortion in the context of women’s health and family planning, which has resulted in a shrinking pool of doctors available to work in abortion clinics.

The videos targeting Planned Parenthood are plaguing the medical field in other ways. In addition to ending the contracts that contribute to Planned Parenthood’s funding, state lawmakers are also trying to advance new laws designed to make it more difficult to conduct research on aborted fetuses.

Biological tissue from aborted tissues — which has been used in scientific research for decades — has contributed to medical advances in vaccines, as well as helped develop new treatments for AIDS, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, cancer, and eyesight loss. The scientists who study fetal tissue say that it’s essential to their work; nonetheless, the controversy swirling around Planned Parenthood has made it difficult for them to stick up for the practice.

Now, lawmakers in states like Wisconsin are threatening to undermine their jobs. There, proposed legislation would make it a felony to use tissue from aborted fetuses and send scientific researchers to prison for up to six years if they’re caught violating the ban. Scientists in Wisconsin have objected, saying that passing this bill would “stifle progress in disease research,” and faculty at the University of Wisconsin have lobbied against it. Nonetheless, the Republican leader of the state Senate says he wants to get it approved this year.

As the campaign against Planned Parenthood heats up, the biggest threat to the organization has always been at the state level, where GOP lawmakers have a better chance of passing new laws that take aim at the group’s services. As state legislators attempt to attack the women’s health provider from all angles, it’s not just about Planned Parenthood itself anymore.

Thanks to the controversy stemming from the video campaign, “anything that’s associated with abortion is considered ripe for regulation,” Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues associate at the Guttmacher Institute, recently told Science Magazine. “In a number of places, the chances that these become state law is very high.”