After Congress finally settled on a budget at the 11th hour two weeks ago, it turned out much of the drama had come down to a fine point absurd even by Washington standards: The fate of the entire government, apparently, turned on a dispute over Planned Parenthood.
This odd quid pro quo pairing — of national budgets and family planning policy — seems destined to infect much of Congress’ squabbles to come. But what, it seems worth asking, does the one have anything to do with the other?
Much, in fact — but not quite in the way Planned Parenthood foes have been thinking.
Investing in federal family planning subsidies actually saves taxpayer money (not to mention prevents abortions from happening). So if policymakers really are looking for ways to rein in government spending — especially spending on social welfare programs for the poor — spending more, not less, funding groups like Planned Parenthood seems smart.
Researchers at the Brookings Institution have found that for every dollar invested in federal family planning subsidies, the government saves more than $5 down the road.
"And that’s probably actually a conservative estimate,” said Adam Thomas, research director of Brookings’ Center on Children and Families.
Low-income women most likely to benefit from federally subsidized contraception are also disproportionately likely to rely on government support through services like food stamps, Medicaid or the Women, Infants and Children program. By funding contraception on the front end, government saves money later on supporting families that are the product of unintended pregnancies.
“The approach we take,” Thomas explains, “is to say, essentially, people cost money, and kids who are born whose conception was unintended are especially expensive in terms of the likelihood that the government will pay for benefits for the mother and child in the form of things like Medicaid-subsidized medical care for the pregnant mother and after the infant is born.”
That 5-to-1 calculation only reflects some government services that support a child up to the age of 5. And it doesn’t take into account other societal costs that come, for example, with higher rates of crime and delinquency that Thomas’ research suggests arise from the children of unplanned pregnancies.
By expanding access to subsidized contraception under Medicaid, Brookings has found, the nation could reduce the number of children born into poverty in the U.S. by about 2 percent. That may not sound like much, but it’s significant, Thomas says.
“The factors that contribute to child poverty or out-of-wedlock childbearing are so numerous and complex that it’s hard to make one change in one area and have a dramatic sweeping effect,” he said. “In fact, reducing kids born into poverty by 2 percent, I’m sorry to say, in comparative terms, is a pretty big effect. You’d love to be able to say ‘I found a magic pill to reduce it by 20 percent, or 40 percent,’ but those sweeping changes are few and far between.”
Investing in family planning also has an important secondary effect that should please pro-life advocates. If we were to expand the public investment in family planning by $235 million, Brookings has calculated, we could reduce the number of abortions performed each year by more than 40,000.
This statistic speaks to a little-known reality about Planned Parenthood (and one willfully distorted by politicians in Washington) – that it spends only about 3 percent of its budget performing abortion services.
“Planned Parenthood spends more money taking steps to reduce the number of abortions than it does providing them,” Thomas said.
So if more federal support for services such as those Planned Parenthood primarily provides would actually be good for the budget, and would prevent thousands of abortions, why can’t we all rally around that idea?
“In my opinion, this should not be as contentious an issue as it is,” Thomas said. “Most of the goals of people on both sides of the political spectrum could be achieved by not just sustaining but expanding family planning subsidies – including reducing abortion, saving taxpayer dollars and improving the prospects of women and children. And the fact that this is a contentious issue I think has more to do with politics than with substance.”