Among many of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s accomplishments that we should celebrate is his Margaret Sanger Award, bestowed upon him by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1966, along with 3 other men (one of whom was President Lyndon Johnson). The award was presented in Washington, D.C., and Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King, accepted on his behalf. That acceptance speech, delivered almost 50 years ago, has wise words that federal and state policymakers should heed:
"There are mountainous obstacles still separating Negroes from a normal existence. Yet one element in stabilizing his life would be an understanding of and easy access to the means to develop a family related in size to his community environment and to the income potential he can command.
This is not to suggest that the Negro will solve all his problems through Planned Parenthood. His problems are far more complex, encompassing economic security, education, freedom from discrimination, decent housing and access to culture. Yet if family planning is sensible it can facilitate or at least not be an obstacle to the solution of the many profound problems that plague him."
What Dr. King understood in 1966 but so many of our political leaders repeatedly fail to comprehend is that Planned Parenthood, through its range of health care services (of which birth control counseling is just one), empowers families in struggling communities with stronger health so they may better pursue their dreams. In a health economics study published last year, it was found that public funding of family planning services (Title X programs, for you health policy wonks) did more than just prevent unintended pregnancies. There were also fewer babies born prematurely, fewer babies born with low birth weights, and fewer rates of sexually transmitted diseases. Taken together, these positive health outcomes saved the government billions of healthcare dollars in Medicaid: $7 saved for every $1 spent on family planning services. The work of Planned Parenthood represents a smart fiscal and human investment, with far-reaching positive ripple effects.
Despite these facts, one of the first orders of business by the 114th Congress was to block funding of Title X programs like Planned Parenthood. Republican politicians in the House of Representatives argue this defunding would stop abortions, despite the fact that there are sufficient laws in place to prohibit providers from using federal funds to perform abortions, and despite the fact that abortions make up only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood's work. Such a bill, even if it were to pass both the Senate and the House, would probably be vetoed by President Obama, but it is worth considering the devastating consequences of defunding Title X. In 2012, 4.3 million women got health care at publicly funded centers receiving some Title X funding. Political football games and grandstanding with public health budgets threaten basic health care for families nationwide.
In addition to attacking reproductive health services through the budget, there are ongoing policy efforts by state legislatures to impose shame and guilt upon women seeking abortions. Extremist state senators and assemblymen nationwide are requiring health care providers to follow onerous building and staffing regulations; provide patients with untruths about abortion; and to perform invasive, medically unnecessary ultrasounds which women must watch or hear. None of these laws are based in scientific evidence. Instead, they create a system of state-imposed shame for women. Physicians and nurses are being required to act as accomplices to this misogynist agenda, an intrusion and violation of the doctor-patient relationship.
It is not shame and guilt, but the many developments in contraception that have contributed to a decline in the abortion rate in the United States. Nonetheless, access to abortion safely performed by healthcare providers continues to be an important issue for women's health in 2015, just as it was decades ago, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr expressed his support for family planning. In a December 1957 issue of Ebony magazine, Dr. King wrote to a mother struggling with poverty and unplanned pregnancies: "I do not think it is correct to argue that birth control is sinful." Dr. King would have been well-aware of Planned Parenthood's role in providing women with abortions, but this did not stop him from being an ardent supporter of the organization: "I have always been deeply interested in and sympathetic with the total work of the Planned Parenthood Federation."
This week, I urge my fellow Americans, especially those in the halls of Congress and statehouses nationwide, to remember all of Dr. King's legacy, and support full access to reproductive health.