Hannah Sayle’s cover story in this week’s Memphis Flyer confirmed the worst fears we had when Shelby County Government politicized family planning last year and added an overlay of religiosity.

For no factual reason, county government removed funding from Planned Parenthood and gave it to Christ Community Health Services despite reports that women had been proselytized and that its staff has been reluctant to inform patients about abortion options even when asked for them.

The Flyer’s coverage shows that the fears are now fact.  Ms. Sayle reports that Christ Community Health Services is serving a fraction of the women served by Planned Parenthood:

“By the time Christ Community’s contract with the health department was finalized and signed on March 14th, Christ Community was averaging a mere 51 Title X visits a month, which pales in comparison to Planned Parenthood’s 719 Title X visits in July 2011 and 841 visits in August of last year.”

It’s all unbelievable and the fact that the Shelby County Health Department is part and parcel of this decimation to women’s health options is nothing short of inexcusable.  And remember this was all made possible by a 9-4 vote with three Democrats making it possible.

So, here’s our prediction: Shelby County Government officials will continue down this disastrous road rather than admit that they made a big mistake.  It usually is when you knock down the wall between church and state.  Maybe it’s not a war on women, but it’s pretty hard for women in our county not to feel like battlefield casualties.

Here’s our blog post on this issue from October 24, 2011:

Planned Parenthood is the perfect piñata for the crowd that puts political payback ahead of a factual framework and the opinions of the majority.

Last week’s action by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners was but the latest pitched battle against Planned Parenthood, but like new voter laws that are disenfranchising five million voters, this too is driven by a shrill brand of conservatism that bears absolutely no resemblance to its political antecedents.

Watching the “take no prisoners” philosophy of reactionary lawmakers play out at the local, state, and national levels, you’d almost think that abortion is illegal in the U.S.  Of course, anti-abortion changes really only apply to the poor who rely on public agencies for their health care.  The rest of us have options, including travel, if the anti-choice crowd is successful in strangling current reproductive rights.

Watching the “my way or the highway” political philosophy of the extreme right, you’d never think that the majority of Americans do not support political agendas aimed at cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood.  But majority opinion seems unimportant when God is on your side and you already have the experience of ignoring the public’s wishes on everything from gun laws to tax policy.

The Three-Act Political Theater

Gone are the days when compromise was accepted by both sides as the grease for government decision-making or when Republican statesmen like Everett Dirksen were willing to find the middle ground where sound public policy was born.  Today, it’s all about being right rather than being reasonable, about winning rather than leading, about creating dysfunction that prevents functioning government but offers political power.

It’s in this context that the Board of Commissioners’ vote was the third act in a three-act play.  The first act was choreographed in Washington by the Tea Party-influenced legislators swept in by the wave of anti-Washington anger, and the second act – similar to what is playing out in legislatures across the U.S. – was hatched in East Tennessee by politicians whose delusions lead them to believe that Planned Parenthood is using federal money to lure women into their clinics for abortions (federal law forbids its funds from being used for abortion).  In the second act, East Tennessee Republicans set out to strip Planned Parenthood of its federal via state funding.

Stacy Campfield, Tea Partier from Knoxville, inserted a budget amendment that said all the federal pass-through Title X family planning funding must go only to County health departments, and he publicly bragged on many occasions that he had blocked Planned Parenthood funding.   Then some unknown person quietly inserted another paragraph in the final budget bill giving the counties the option to sub-contract Title X, and since no one reads the budget, it passed with the new sub-contract option. Mr. Campfield was furious and asked Haslam to line item veto the new paragraph, but that was not an option for the budget, which effectively sent the issue – and the political agenda – to Shelby County.

As a result, an RFP was sent out by the Shelby County Health Department and a special committee was set up to evaluate the responses (after the health department managed to keep about $250,000 of the federal funding from the total), but the last-minute amendment cracked the door enough to give Planned Parenthood a glimmer of hope.

The Fix

It was not to be.  From the beginning, it was difficult to argue with suspicions that the fix was in.  The make-up of special county committee to evaluate responses to the RFP raised suspicions that the conclusion was foregone.  Shelby County could have set up a non-political, medically-based evaluation run by the local medical association.  Instead of medical professionals, the health department committee was salted with members who owed their paychecks and their appointments to the county mayor (whose daughter ironically works for Planned Parenthood in Fort Worth, Texas).

As for the board of commissioners, every vote has the potential to become a litmus test for party purity.  As a result, the vote on Planned Parenthood, like so many others, became an exercise to ferret out any conservatives with minds of their own.  It’s the same attitude that led former commissioner Mike Carpenter to be vilified by his fellow Republicans for occasionally having the temerity to cast his vote with Democrats.

Even if the county commissioners had ultimately selected Planned Parenthood, Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris – one of those small government Republicans who seems always ready to force his politics on local government – already had a legislative bill drawn up that would have eliminated Planned Parenthood if it had been chosen by the commissioners.

Instead, the $397,900, by a 9-4 vote that in the end included three Democratic commissioners, went to Christ Community Health Services despite reports that women had been proselytized and that its staff has been reluctant to inform patients about abortion options even when asked for them.

When Facts Don’t Matter

While the commissioners’ award seems another blurring of the line between church and state, Christ Community Health Services more importantly must meet federal guidelines which could result in the end of the funding if guilty of these complaints.  In particular, federal rules call for unbiased, factual information on options upon request.

Key to the board of commissioners’ decision was the fact that Christ Community Health Services has multiple sites, but left unsaid by its proponents was the fact that Planned Parenthood serves more women at its one site than Christ Community Health Services does at its seven.  This discrepancy only makes sense.  If you’re a pregnant teenager or young woman, would a clinic named Christ Community be at the head of your list for nonjudgmental, unquestioning reproductive health care?  One of its own officials referred to its “moral and religious overtones,” and its website says its “goal is to go where the need is greatest to provide quality services in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Apparently, the facility plans to farm out emergency contraception, but this inconvenience did little to dissuade the fervent Planned Parenthood opponents.  Neither did conflicts between the information on the response to the RFP and comments by Christ Community Health Services officials at meetings of the county board of commissioners.

While Christ Community Health Services said that it was prepared to handle these new patients, the health department already has received complaints from women who went there but found the clinic unprepared for them.

More to Come

But we suspect none of these mere medical issues will ever trouble politicians motivated solely by their hatred of Planned Parenthood and the opportunity to fuel the culture wars on which they rely for their power.  The extent to which hyper-conservatives will go to purge those on their political enemies list is unprecedented.

The episode at the board of commissioners’ meeting was merely the latest proof.  It most certainly won’t be the last.