Opinion - Attacks on Planned Parenthood are attacks on public health

Address the root problem and not a bogeyman

The latest fever causing GOP lawmakers across the country to break into a sweat has found its way to Georgia. Fresh on the heels of immigration, "religious freedom," and whatever other far-right cause celebre that have rapted Republican lawmakers' attention comes Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The political game lawmakers are playing has real-world consequences on millions of people and issues that Georgia needs to address.

Last Monday, the health provider announced that the state had cut off access to kits that helped thousands of Georgia people, primarily women, get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. The state Department of Public Health claimed the move came after a decrease in funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Planned Parenthood claimed the change might have been linked to an investigation into the nonprofit ordered by Gov. Nathan Deal. That state probe, one of several across the country, came after anti-abortion activists released a series of undercover videos featuring Planned Parenthood executives talking about providing fetal tissue to researchers.

Two days after cutting off access to the STD testing kits, however, Planned Parenthood and DPH announced they had found a middle ground. The nonprofit offered to pay to use a lab that the state had traditionally allowed Planned Parenthood to use for free. The state accepted that offer and crisis was averted.

Left undiscussed for the most part was that the aforementioned inquiry into Planned Parenthood, as it has in other states, came up with nothing. The medical service provider's Georgia clinics were not, as had been alleged of facilities elsewhere, selling off fetal tissue. According to the state's investigation, Planned Parenthood's clinics in Georgia were disposing of the remains in accordance with state law.

The skirmish might seem settled but Republican lawmakers' battle against Planned Parenthood and women's health is not. In less than three months, state lawmakers will return to the Gold Dome to start the 2016 legislative session. It will be an election year, so expect most right-wingers to put forth extreme measures aimed at establishing conservative bona fides. Abortion is often one of the issues lawmakers use to attract attention.

At the heart of many of the problems fueling Georgia's public health issues is poverty, something that the state has shown little appetite to address on a substantial level. It would be nice if the state's leadership cared as much about children who are born into difficult lives — as well as the people whom those children call mother and father, who know firsthand the high cost of being poor — as much our elected officials claim they do about the unborn. Georgia would be a much better place.

People should be allowed to believe whatever they wish on the issues that divide the country. It fosters debate and innovation on policy issues and keeps hope alive that one day we will negotiate and find common ground. But playing politics with people's health is morally wrong.

What state lawmakers refuse to understand is that the choices they are making — and they are choices — are not just another movement of troops in the culture wars. These decisions have impacts on women's health and overall public health. Tens of thousands of women depend on the nonprofit's services to promote better reproductive health, detect sexually transmitted diseases, educate the public, and other services. According to Planned Parenthood, abortions are a small part — 3 percent — of the organization's services. Politifiact calculated that 12 percent of Planned Parenthood's services were abortions.

According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia ranks near the bottom when it comes to sexual health. According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, the state ranked first in the country for primary syphilis cases, sixth for congenital syphilis, and eighth for gonorrhea. There is an HIV/AIDS epidemic in metro Atlanta among young gay and bisexual black men. Though Georgia's teenage pregnancy rate has followed a downward trend in recent years, the state's rate remains higher than the national average.

These are all areas where Planned Parenthood and other health service providers can make an impact and step up where the state either does not have the capacity or the courage to do so. Yet state leaders prefer to see an organization working on the front lines of these issues disappear rather than partner with it.

Doing so would require finding actual solutions to problems. While lawmakers were engaging in this fascinating exercise, they would likely discover that they have been trying to treat the symptoms rather than address the root problem.