No organization in the United States has come under such sustained attack in recent months as Planned Parenthood, and no place has demonstrated the fundamental dishonesty and absurdity of that attack like Louisiana.
The anti-Planned Parenthood campaign mounted by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration has become the one-stop shop for everything you need to know about the politicization of women’s reproductive health rights.
What’s especially disheartening about Louisiana is that it’s the model for a state that needs more of the services that Planned Parenthood provides out of its clinics in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, not fewer. As Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post observed Monday, Louisiana ranks first in the United States (excluding the District of Columbia), in the rates of syphilis and gonorrhea.
This reflects the generally low health status of the state’s residents. A survey by the UnitedHealth Foundation ranked it 48th among the states in the overall health of its residents. Among its failing grades is its low birth weight of infants: over the last two decades, the foundation reports, low birth weights have risen to 10.8% from 9.4% of births. Efforts to shut down functioning women’s health clinics are plainly part of the problem.
After Jindal announced his plan to cancel Medicaid contracts with Planned Parenthood’s two Louisiana clinics, Planned Parenthood sought a federal court injunction to block the move. The state drew nationwide horselaughs by asserting in response that the shutdowns wouldn’t have a bad impact on the estimated 5,200 patients served by its two clinics. The reason, it told Federal Judge John W. DeGravelles in Baton Rouge at a Sept. 2 hearing, was that some 2,000 other medical providers were available to serve the patients’ needs.
As Planned Parenthood attorneys pointed out, the state’s roster included dentists, cosmetologists, audiologists and other providers who “are not going to do breast cancer screenings or give out birth control.”
Judge DeGravelles was suitably skeptical. “We have dentists on there, sir,” he snapped at Stephen Russo, a lawyer for the state. “You’re telling me that they can provide family planning and related services?... And the ophthalmologists?... And the audiologists?”
Russo explained that those providers had merely provided services at some point which they “coded” as family planning in seeking reimbursement from Louisiana’s Medicaid program.
Obviously aware that the judge was looking askance at their reasoning, the state later pared down the list to a mere 29 substitute providers. But the new list included five that provided no contraceptive services, and others that were not accepting new patients or for which the earliest new appointment was Nov. 1.
DeGravelles was unhappy with the state’s admission that it had no reason for terminating the clinics’ contracts -- at least not one based on their competence or professionalism in treating their patients. They were doing so, Russo said, because the law allowed State Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert to do so.
“You’ve got 5,200 women whose care is interrupted,” the judge said, “and you’re telling me Secretary Kliebert’s reason for doing that is there is no reason?”
“She has chosen to terminate that contract,” Russo replied.
DeGravelles was originally scheduled to rule Monday on Planned Parenthood’s motion. But the state -- obviously fearing it would lose -- made that moot by rescinding its cancellations. Instead, state officials say, they will shortly refile to defund Planned Parenthood “for cause” -- the “cause” being that the organization reached a $4.3-million settlement in Texas in 2013 over a billing dispute, which Louisiana claims makes it unsuitable to treat women in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Once the state refiles, the organization will have 30 days to appeal -- or attempt again to block the move in court.
It’s unclear why Louisiana only discovered the Texas settlement now, other than its desperation to find a reason, any reason, to torment Planned Parenthood’s patients. What is clear is that Jindal represents the sort of politician willing to hurt anyone -- the more powerless the better -- to create a political persona for himself as a bulwark against women’s health rights. Planned Parenthood has become a shibboleth for Republican officeholders in the Deep South -- a battle against efforts to defund the organization is raging in Arkansas now, too. They wear their efforts to shut down Planned Parenthood as a badge. They even have the temerity to cite plainly deceptive and distorted surreptitious videotapes of Planned Parenthood officials as “evidence.”
Will other state governors fall into line behind Jindal, at the expense of their constituents’ health? Louisiana can only fall further in its public health stature as a result of Jindal’s actions, and it didn’t have far to fall to reach rock bottom to begin with.