The Commercial Appeal Editorial Board
Tennessee lawmakers are playing election-year politics with the health and reproductive rights of low-income women in Memphis and across the state.
Earlier this week, Gov. Bill Haslam quietly signed a law that seeks to withhold TennCare funds from health care providers that perform elective abortions.
It’s a guileless assault on Planned Parenthood of Tennessee, which uses nearly all of its funding on services for low-income women such as birth control, cancer screenings, and the testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
Planned Parenthood receives federal funding from two sources: Title X, which does not allow federal funds to be used for abortions; and Medicaid (TennCare here), which can only be used to fund abortions in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother (per federal law).
Only about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s funds are used for abortion-related services. About 80 percent of the people who receive services from Planned Parenthood live at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
It’s also an invitation to burden state taxpayers with the cost of a lawsuit the state would probably lose.
The director of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services notified Medicaid agencies in all 50 states in April 2016 that providing abortion services does not disqualify providers such as Planned Parenthood from receiving federal money.
Nearly every court battle involving legislation that seeks to take federal money away from Planned Parenthood has ended in failure for anti-abortion state legislatures, including those in Arkansas and Mississippi.
Courts have consistently found that to block funding for a qualified medical provider denies the constitutional rights of those who depend on the organization’s medical services.
Meanwhile, enactment of the measure signed by Haslam still depends on getting a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
All of which points toward the likelihood of failure for the General Assembly’s anti-Planned Parenthood faction, unless striking a political pose to impress single-issue voters constitutes success.
The legislation was passed in the state Senate by a vote of 24-2 and in the House by 71-17. Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis was the only Democrat to vote in favor of this punitive measure, which would limit access for many of his constituents to essential health services.
Tate’s constituents should remember his vote when he faces Democrat Katrina Robinson in the Aug. 2 primary. Because of the county’s high poverty rate, Shelby would be among the counties hit hardest if poor women are discouraged from getting treatment.
This new law is aligned with a typical strategy among state legislators who disagree with federal court decisions that affirm the constitutional rights of low-income people and minorities.
Legislators may feel that the ascension of the Trump presidency has opened the door to laws that discriminate against the poor and the powerless. The belief here is that most Tennesseans would object to turning back that clock.