By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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It's not much of a place, really: a bland, one-story yellow brick building hoping to remain innocuous to the small-town traffic that drives by. Its sign--Corsicana Health Services--also doesn't arouse much curiosity. It's better to remain low-key, to blend in rather than let everyone in town know the clinic is part of Planned Parenthood, which performs more abortions than any provider in Texas and is a lightning rod for the wrath of anti-abortion activists across the country.
"You need any condoms today, honey?" asks clinic manager Kristi Guerra, whose country-fried cheerfulness warms the otherwise drab clinical feel of the waiting room. "Nobody who needs them gets out of here without a sack full of condoms." To her, it's simply a matter of practicing safer sex: less chance of contracting STDs or HIV/AIDS or an unwanted pregnancy that might result in an abortion. And teen-agers in small towns--they tend to get more sexually active in the summer, she says. "What else is there to do?"
A young patient, her hair short and strawberry blond, enters the clinic, surprising Guerra with her promptness. "You called me yesterday and said my Pap smear was abnormal," she says. "I came for my medication."
"Got it right over here," says Guerra, who recommends a follow-up pap smear within six months, another precaution against cervical cancer. No attempt is made to collect money. This is a publicly funded clinic serving the family-planning and reproductive health-care needs of the poor and marginally poor, those who have no health insurance because they lost their job or never found one.
Those needs include annual gynecological exams, breast and cervical cancer screenings and birth control--including the controversial "morning after" pill, an anathema to religious conservatives who believe it's still abortion. Those same conservatives are none too happy with the clinic's sex education counseling, which goes far beyond the "abstinence only" agenda endorsed by the Bush administration. Pregnancy tests are also offered, and when one returns positive, the patient consults with a family-planning assistant who is trained to discuss every available option--prenatal care, adoption and abortion, which may include referrals to the nearest abortion provider, Dallas' Planned Parenthood.
What the clinic doesn't do is abortions, yet this rural family-planning clinic, which serves approximately 250 patients a month, soon may be the latest casualty in the decades-long cultural war over abortion. The Texas Legislature has added a rider to its appropriations bill that denies public funding for family planning to any abortion provider, even if it performs abortions with private funds. And even though Corsicana Health Services does not perform abortions itself, the fact that it is an affiliate of Planned Parenthood of North Texas, which does provide abortions, will be enough to deny it family-planning funds.
Six of Planned Parenthood's regional affiliates, including North Texas, have taken this rider personally and filed a federal lawsuit claiming that this legislation amounts to the state levying an unlawful penalty on a woman's constitutionally protected right to choose. Because the state also is placing greater restrictions on the use of the federal government's money than the federal government is, Planned Parenthood alleges these restrictions (no family-planning funds if the organization performs abortions) are also unconstitutional. Its petition has received some favorable play from an Austin federal judge, who has granted a restraining order preventing the state from requiring Planned Parenthood affiliates to either sign a pledge to stop providing abortions or be disqualified from the state family-planning program. He will consider extending the injunction at a hearing scheduled for July 25.
The legislation is far too sweeping, argues Kathryn Allen, senior vice president for community relations for Planned Parenthood of North Texas, and "risks depriving 115,000 low-income women of their health-care needs at 33 clinics across the state." The $13 million in federal dollars helps fund family planning and reproductive health services, not abortions, which are offered at only seven clinics and account for only 2.3 percent of the medical visits to its 85 clinics in Texas.
The legislative sponsors of the rider--Senate Republicans Steve Ogden from Bryan and Tommy Williams from The Woodlands--say their legislation was not meant to target Planned Parenthood in particular or family planning in general. They just want government out of the business of subsidizing abortion providers, whether that means directly for the procedure itself or indirectly for the expenses--staff, rent, utilities--of its family-planning clinics or services.
At the risk of sounding paranoid, Planned Parenthood also believes that this rider is part of a "pernicious web of assault" that is bent on destroying its organization--as well as family planning. "Abortion is just the ideological tip of the iceberg," says Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "The hard right--which has found a spokesperson in President Bush--has long been opposed to reproductive health care and is making an orchestrated attack on family planning and sex education."
More mainstream anti-abortion groups deny this rider is a concerted effort at anything but banning public dollars for abortion. "The problem with family-planning funds is that they are fungible--easy to move around and indirectly fund abortions," says Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life. "Texas is not the only state concerned about abortion providers using family-planning funds to promote abortion as a method of birth control."