A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Planned Parenthood Goes on Offense


A Planned Parenthood ad wrongly implies that New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte supports shutting down the government in order to defund Planned Parenthood. She doesn’t. The ad also exaggerates the potential impact of a shutdown.

Ayotte did vote in favor of a failed bill to defund Planned Parenthood, as the ad says. But she is on record saying that she does not support allowing a government shutdown to attempt to force that defunding.

Planned Parenthood launched the ad against Ayotte on Aug. 18 as part of a campaign that targets three other Republican senators who also voted for the bill to prohibit federal funding of Planned Parenthood – Sens. Ron Johnson, Rob Portman and Pat Toomey. They have not publicly taken a position on a shutdown.

The ad features several people raising questions about the effects of a shutdown on services such as veterans benefits, Social Security, Medicare, Head Start and small-business loans. While it’s true that a government shutdown would likely affect some people who access or are trying to access these programs — at least based on the last shutdown in 2013 — most of the programs listed would largely continue to operate as they do now.

Social Security and Medicare payments, for example, would continue to be made, and veterans hospitals would remain open.

Planned Parenthood has been under increased scrutiny recently due to undercover videos that showed Planned Parenthood officials talking about the procedures for collecting fetal tissue for research and the fees they charge tissue procurement companies. That has led to a renewed push by some Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood.

The ads all have the same script, but are personalized for the candidate being targeted. Here’s the opening of the one targeting Ayotte in New Hampshire:

Planned Parenthood ad: First Kelly Ayotte voted to defund Planned Parenthood, risking health care for millions of women. Now Republicans want to shut down the government to block funding for Planned Parenthood. What would a shutdown mean for New Hampshire?

The ad then cuts to an elderly man in a wheelchair who asks, “Will anyone be there to process my veterans benefits?” An elderly woman then asks, “What will that do to Social Security and Medicare?” A woman holding a toddler asks, “Will I be able to get my daughter into Head Start?” And finally, a woman asks, “What about small-business loans?”

It’s true that all four senators voted on Aug. 3 in favor of a bill that sought to prohibit federal funding of Planned Parenthood. Johnson, Portman and Toomey were also cosponsors of the bill, which failed to get the 60 votes needed to move forward (the vote was 53-46).

As for whether that vote risked “health care for millions of women,” that is a matter of political debate. Ayotte’s office says any federal funds taken from Planned Parenthood would be “redirected to local community health centers that provide services such as cancer screenings, mammograms and contraceptives.” Planned Parenthood officials say its clinics serve many rural and under-served areas where there are no other health center alternatives. And, they say, many alternative community health centers are not equipped to handle the influx of women now served by Planned Parenthood.

Republicans on a Shutdown

After highlighting the failed vote to defund Planned Parenthood, the ad’s narrator says Republicans are considering a new strategy. “Now Republicans want to shut down the government to block funding for Planned Parenthood,” the ad says. The ad against Ayotte ends with: “Tell Sen. Ayotte: Stand up for Planned Parenthood health care — not a government shutdown.”

It’s true there are some in the Republican Party willing to risk a government shutdown over the issue. On July 29, 18 House Republicans wrote a letter to House leadership saying they “cannot and will not support any funding resolution — an appropriations bill, an omnibus package, a continuing resolution, or otherwise — that contains any funding for Planned Parenthood.” There are some in the Senate who have voiced similar sentiments, including presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz.

Specifically not in that camp, however, is Ayotte.

From the New York Times on July 3o:

New York Times, July 30: “I’m going to want to make sure that we keep the government funded,” said Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, who would like Congress to cut off Planned Parenthood’s funding, but not by holding hostage appropriations that keep the government’s lights on.

An Aug. 4 Bloomberg article about the possibility of a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood had this to say about Ayotte’s position:

Bloomberg, Aug. 4: New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte called for a “responsible” agreement to fund the government given that 60 votes are required in the Senate, adding: “I think that we should ensure that we do not have a government shutdown.”

Another target of the ads, Portman, said this:

The Hill, Aug. 3: Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), another incumbent facing reelection next year, said he’s “for defunding,” and then said “I don’t think anybody is talking about shutting down the government, but we want to defund Planned Parenthood, so we’ll see.”

Johnson was even more noncommittal. When asked if he would shut down the government over the Planned Parenthood funding, Johnson told The Hill: “That would be a hypothetical question. I’m not going to answer it.”

A spokeswoman for Toomey said he “thinks we should fund women’s health programs through organizations that do not hold Planned Parenthood’s outrageous disregard for human life.” However, Toomey has not publicly taken a position on whether he would support a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding.

More broadly, the ad implies there is greater consensus among Republicans about a shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding than actually exists. In fact, the very article cited in the Planned Parenthood ad — an Aug. 4 article in the Christian Science Monitor headlined, “Will Republicans shut down the government over Planned Parenthood?” — carries a subhead that says while the idea has been floated by some Republicans, it “has few advocates.” According to the article: “Much of the Republican party … has been quick to emphasize that a government shutdown is neither likely nor desirable.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for one, has vowed that the issue would not lead to a government shutdown this fall.

The Effects of a Shutdown

Nonetheless, the ad hints at the possibility of disastrous problems should the government shut down. The potential problems from a shutdown are posed as vague questions, rather than declarative statements. But the consequences of a shutdown are far less dire than the questions posed by the people in the ad imply.

For example, one elderly woman asks, “What will [a shutdown] do to Social Security and Medicare?” Based on the experience of the federal government shutdown in 2013, the answer for her is, “Probably nothing.”

The federal shutdown in 2013 stretched from Oct. 1 through Oct. 16, largely over the issue of whether to defund implementation of parts of the Affordable Care Act. The shutdown resulted in some 800,000 federal employees being furloughed, and caused substantial disruption to many federal services.

But Social Security and Medicare are part of mandatory funding streams, funded outside the regular appropriations bills. And so Social Security payments continued to be made. In fact, during the second week of the shutdown, more than 8,000 furloughed workers were recalled to ensure the prompt payment of benefits. But there were some who were affected. For example, in an analysis of the effects of the 2013 shutdown, the White House Office of Management and Budget noted that the Social Security Administration suspended the issuance of new Social Security cards, and could not verify existing numbers, affecting thousands seeking jobs or loans.

In the ad, a man in a wheelchair asks, “Will anyone be there to process my veterans benefits?” During the 2013 shutdown, veterans hospitals remained open, but Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told Congress that a discontinuance of overtime during the shutdown slowed its review of benefit claims, meaning that “we are no longer making the significant gains we have made in recent months toward eliminating the backlog in claims.”

As for the woman in the ad who worries whether she will be able to get her daughter into Head Start, the OMB noted that the two-week shutdown in 2013 “forced Head Start grantees serving nearly 6,300 children to close their centers for up to nine days (before re-opening with the help of private philanthropists or their state).” That’s a real disruption, but to put it into context, there was a funded enrollment of nearly 904,000 in Head Start that year.

The overwhelming majority of 1,600 Head Start programs continued to operate through the government shutdown, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families told us via email. However, of those 1,600 programs, the grants for 23 of them were due for new funding on Oct. 1, while the government was shut down. Seven of these grantees were not able to operate during the shutdown, while 16 operated through interim funds provided by private donors.

In other words, there were some disruptions to the programs highlighted in the ads, but by and large those programs continued to operate normally.

Planned Parenthood can legitimately warn of the (slim) possibility of a government shutdown by those who oppose funding the group — some Republicans indeed support such action. But not Ayotte. And the ad’s images of seniors questioning what will happen to their Social Security and Medicare imply a far more dire consequence than most seniors would face.

— Robert Farley