When Thursday’s GOP presidential debate turned to women’s health care, Donald Trump promised to defund Planned Parenthood — but only after acknowledging the group’s essential role in providing health care to “millions of women” nationwide.
“Millions and millions of women — cervical cancer, breast cancer — are helped by Planned Parenthood. So you can say whatever you want, but they have millions of women going through Planned Parenthood that are helped greatly,” Trump said. “And I wouldn’t fund it.”
The frontrunner was responding to Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) assertion that he cannot be trusted to nominate truly conservative Supreme Court justices. Rubio specifically invoked Trump’s past comments in support of the women’s health non-profit, which has faced elaborate and false attacks from the right-wing media infrastructure throughout this election season.
Trump’s odd syncopation of the idea that Planned Parenthood provides essential services to millions of people and that it should be cut off from a key source of funding was not a one-off. His answer flipped repeatedly between praising the organization and promising to doom its budgets.
“I would defund it because of the abortion factor, which they say is 3 percent. I don’t know what percentage it is. They say it’s 3 percent,” Trump went on. “But I would defund it, because I’m pro-life. But millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood.”
In the context of the GOP primary, where smears of the non-profit as seeking to sell baby parts for cash have routinely been treated as factual, Trump’s repeated acknowledgments of the real nature of Planned Parenthood’s work are unusual and noteworthy.
The group does indeed deliver essential screening and treatment services to millions of women — many of whom would not have any access to such services if their local Planned Parenthood shut down. From October 2012 to September 2013 alone, Planned Parenthood performed about 900,000 pap smears and breast cancer screenings, 3.5 million birth control consultations, and 4.5 million appointments to test for or treat sexually transmitted infections. Abortion services were just 3 percent of the 10.6 million services Planned Parenthood provided that year, according to its annual report.
That suggests the group provided abortion services about 318,000 times for the year. Pro-life zealots cling to such figures, carefully denuded of the full context of Planned Parenthood’s work, to paint the group as an abortion behemoth. Trump’s refusal to climb into that gutter fully makes him exceptional within the modern Republican party.
Of course, pledging to block all federal funding for Planned Parenthood jumps him right back into the GOP’s radically conservative mainstream. It doesn’t make much sense to simultaneously insist that people reckon with Planned Parenthood’s full spectrum of services and pledge to strip funding from those very same services, of course, but undermining the group is almost mandatory for GOP politicians today. Even Gov. John Kasich (R-OH), the closest thing to a moderate Republican left in the race, has signed off on gutting the group’s budget.
In addition to the legislative and rhetorical assaults on the group over the past year, anti-choice purists have brought confrontation to Planned Parenthood’s doorstep. At least one facility was set ablaze in the fall in response to a right-wing smear campaign that ultimately led to criminal charges against the smear artists. Multiple others have seen suspicious fires, and a Colorado Springs clinic was fatally attacked by a gunman in November who later invoked the false fetal tissue sales claims to explain his motivation.
But the primary mode of attack on Planned Parenthood will likely always be through the law. Multiple states have used carefully tailored legislation to effectively shut down clinics and chip away at women’s access to both abortions and the vastly more common health care services that Trump cited.
The end effect has been to leave women’s legal right to control of their own wombs intact on paper, while reducing their practical ability to exercise that right so dramatically that reproductive health care services may simply be out of reach for millions of Americans.