Planned Parenthood, The Pill, and P. T. Barnum

Vector illustration of cartoon circus tents on a blue sky background. Vector eps and high resolution jpeg files included
Vector illustration of cartoon circus tents on a blue sky background. Vector eps and high resolution jpeg files included

A minority of conservative Republicans are once again threatening to shut down the federal government. This time, more than 30 have signed a letter saying they'll vote to shut the whole government down unless Planned Parenthood is totally defunded. They seem determined to put on quite a political circus.

Reading their letter, a couple of things jumped out at me. One is that all of the signatories are men. None of them will ever get pregnant, or need to get a test for cervical cancer, or a referral for a mammogram. Those are, of course, the kinds of things Planned Parenthood spends most of its time providing.

The other thing that really jumps out is how defunding Planned Parenthood would be truly terrible public health policy. And shutting down the government in order to achieve it - would be even worse.

Consider for just a moment. According to the highly respected Guttmacher Institute, in 2010--the most recent year for which comprehensive data are available:

• Contraceptive care at publicly supported centers like Planned Parenthood helped women avert 2.2 million unintended pregnancies every year, which would have resulted in 1.1 million unplanned births, 761,000 abortions and 164,000 preterm or low-birth-weight births.

• Pap and HPV testing and HPV vaccination at publicly supported centers like Planned Parenthood prevented 3,700 cases of cervical cancer and 2,100 cervical cancer deaths.

• This resulted in net public savings of $13.6 billion, or $7.09 saved for every public dollar spent.

And besides the broad public health benefits of funding Planned Parenthood, access to the family planning resources they provide can make a huge difference in the lives of individual women, and their families. It can even impact their career path and effect the broader economy.

According to a Harvard study titled: The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women's Career and Marriage Decisions, access to reliable birth control for women, beginning in the late 1960's, lowered the costs of engaging in long-term career investments and gave women much greater certainty about their career prospects. Around 1970, the career decisions of young women began to change abruptly. There were large increases in the enrollment of women in lengthy professional training programs, like law and medicine. Access to contraception enabled women to pursue careers as dentists, architects, veterinarians, and economists. Women could actually plan their careers. It opened up a whole world of new choices that led to higher employment rates.In 1963, only 45 percent of prime working-age women (25 to 54) were in the labor force but today, the number has risen to 75 percent.

And remember, we're talking about something that significantly affects fully half the population. According to a Bloomberg News ranking of the "Most Disruptive Ideas in Our History", the birth control pill ranks #9 - just ahead of Apple.

But it wasn't just the pill that facilitated all this positive change for women. Laws changed too, and Planned Parenthood played a key role there as well.

Back in 1960, 30 states had laws in place that prohibited advertisements regarding birth control and 22 states had some general prohibition on the sale of contraceptives. But Connecticut's law was the strictest. There, it was against the law for women -married or unmarried - to go into a pharmacy and purchase any form of birth control, or even ask the pharmacist how to avoid an unplanned pregnancy.

So, in 1961, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, Estelle Griswold, began a legal battle to overturn the state's anti-birth control statute. Her efforts led to the famous Supreme Court case of Griswold vs. Connecticut that struck down the Connecticut law and established for the first time a right of marital privacy. This far-reaching expansion of personal liberty continues to reverberate to this day and is regarded as one of the most important and far-reaching revolutions in constitutional history.

But now, after a half century of progress, thanks in large measure to Planned Parenthood, some Republicans seem determined to try to march us backwards - and seem determined to make a circus out of trying to shut down the organization.

It seems worth noting then, that the anti-birth control law at the center of the Griswold case, was enacted back in 1879 under the sponsorship of Connecticut state legislator P.T. Barnum. Yes, that P.T. Barnum - who went on to greater fame, running "P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome." So welcome to Republican Politics - the 2016 edition. It's the greatest show on Earth!