In 1929 at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum, Margaret Sanger appeared at an event with a gag across her mouth. It was a bit of theater to illustrate a serious point: The city authorities had forbidden her from speaking publicly about birth control; they had gagged her.
Ninety years later, here we are. Today, the organization Sanger founded more than a century ago has grown and evolved but now is faced with another gag: the Trump-Pence administration’s Title X gag rule.
Shortly after the advent of the birth control pill and before the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, then-President Richard Nixon put a federal program in place with a simple and critical purpose: to make family planning services available to the people in this country who couldn’t afford them.
For 5 decades, Title X worked great
That federal program was called Title X (ten). And for five decades, Title X worked great. Every year, people across the country, including tens of thousands of Minnesotans, used Title X to get birth control, STI tests, and cancer screenings they couldn’t otherwise afford.
But then, nearly 50 years into the program, the Trump-Pence administration changed the rules, so that no health care provider that receives Title X funds may provide or even refer for abortion. Planned Parenthood — the largest provider of reproductive health care for women in the country, and a Title X grantee from the very beginning — could remain in the Title X program, they said, as long as we stopped telling people where they could get a safe and legal abortion. It was a bribe, and a big one — millions of dollars a year for our patients.
Planned Parenthood exists to ensure that every person can get the reproductive health care they need, no matter who they are or how much money they make. This administration knows that. So perhaps they truly believed we would take the bribe. After all, they were holding hostage the health care of low-income Americans, the people who already have the hardest time getting care, the people we fight hardest to care for.
But no amount of money would be sufficient to take this dirty deal.
Commitment to speaking truth
Your income level shouldn’t determine if you can receive full and complete information about your health care options. Remaining in the Title X program would mean gagging our doctors and turning our back on the foundational promise of this organization. For more than 100 years, women have known they can count on Planned Parenthood for expertise and the truth. The insidious games of this administration will not change that. At the core of Planned Parenthood’s mission is an unshakable commitment to speaking truth to power and truth to our patients.
If we were to forfeit the truth, it wouldn’t matter how much money they’d give us, we’d have nothing — because we would have lost our ethical foundation.
Our doors remain open, and we have no plans to close any of them, thanks to the incredible generosity of our devoted donors. But still, the effects of the Title X gag rule are real and they are devastating. In Minnesota, the sliding fee scale in our health centers used to go all the way down to zero, so we could ensure we were able to give every person the care they needed, even if they had no money at all. Right now, without Title X, we have to ask every patient to pay something, even if they can’t afford it, because the safety net that was in place for nearly 50 years is gone. And that is heartbreaking. We never, ever, want to see someone walk out our doors without the care they need. Personally, this has been one of the most painful ordeals of my nearly two decades as president and CEO of our regional affiliate. But I have not, for one single moment, doubted that walking away from this devious bribe was the right thing to do.
A fight for freedom
We will not be complicit in furthering the oppression of low-income women in this country. At every turn in our country’s history, women have had to fight for autonomy. We have fought to be able to vote for who represents us, to buy things without a husband’s signature, or to get the health care we need without a politician’s permission.
The fight for reproductive health care is a fight for freedom. There is no amount of money that could make us turn our back on that fight now.
Sarah Stoesz is the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States.
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