For the right reasons, congressional Republicans want to end taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest abortion provider.
Horrific undercover videos released by the Center for Medical Progress show Planned Parenthood officials blithely talking about selling fetal organs. One video shows a former technician for StemExpress, a company that worked with Planned Parenthood, explaining how she used scissors to cut apart “the most gestated fetus and closest thing to a baby I’ve seen” to “procure a brain.”
These Republicans’ motive is sound, but the problem is tactics. Some in the GOP say that unless Planned Parenthood is defunded, they’re willing to shut down the federal government—which would be a disaster for the pro-life cause.
Only 41% of Americans support cutting off taxpayer money to Planned Parenthood, and 51% oppose it, according to an Aug. 25 Quinnipiac University poll. Only 22% favor a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding; 69% oppose the idea. When pollsters asked who voters would blame more for such a shutdown, 41% said Republicans in Congress and 33% President Obama and Democrats.
These numbers help explain why the nation’s largest, most influential pro-life group, the National Right to Life Committee, doesn’t support a government shutdown. “Quite frankly, I think Planned Parenthood is a vile organization, and I resent the fact that they get any tax money,” NRLC President Carol Tobias told the New York Times. “But realistically, with President Obama in the White House holding that veto pen, I don’t know that any government shutdown could accomplish what we want.”
Though the NRLC is open to using budget reconciliation procedures to evade a Senate filibuster and cut off funding by a simple majority, its leaders know even then that congressional pro-lifers lack the two-thirds supermajority necessary to override President Obama’s inevitable veto.
Less than half of Americans have heard of or watched the undercover videos, according to an Aug. 13 Fox News poll, and too many see Planned Parenthood as a women’s health-care provider, not an abortion mill. A shutdown would give Planned Parenthood an opportunity to play the victim, and the majority of taxpayer dollars it receives are from mandatory spending programs like Medicaid, which is not subject to a shutdown.
Rather than pick a losing battle, the NRLC calls for congressional hearings to educate the public on Planned Parenthood’s abhorrent practices. Ms. Tobias also wants pro-lifers to keep their eye on 2016: “What we have to do is get a new pro-life president in, and we’d have a much better chance of actually taking away their money.”
Pro-life leaders understand that the 2013 government shutdown damaged the Republican Party. The GOP’s favorable rating after the 2012 election stood at 43%, according to Gallup, but dropped during the shutdown to 28%—a record low for either party.
Supporters of the 2013 shutdown claim otherwise. After all, they argue, by the 2014 election, the GOP’s Gallup rating had climbed back to 42%, and Republicans won nine additional Senate seats and added 13 House seats. But those victories were despite the shutdown, not because of it. No new senator or representative campaigned by promising more shutdowns.
If right-to-life leaders oppose a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood, why are some Republicans so intent on trying to force one? A few presidential hopefuls seem to want a shutdown to burnish their credentials with primary voters. But they cannot explain how they will get the votes to pass the defunding measure or overcome a presidential veto. Without such a plan, this is simply self-promotion.
At least 31 congressmen have signed a letter circulated by South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney saying that they will not vote for any budget that funds Planned Parenthood. They, too, lack a strategy to get a defunding measure signed into law. Some of these congressmen would use a failure to defund Planned Parenthood as an excuse to get Republicans to vote with the Democrats to kick John Boehner out as speaker. Since the Republican signatories are from safe districts—they received an average 66% of the vote in 2014—they are perhaps not bothered by the damage a shutdown will do to the GOP in battleground states or marginal districts.
Republicans in Congress who want to risk a shutdown over Planned Parenthood have an obligation to spell out how they would get it done. They can’t. That’s why any Republicans who engineer a shutdown will be unwitting allies of the abortion movement. Life is too important to let the GOP’s suicide caucus damage the cause with such an ill-considered effort.
A version of this article appeared September 24, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Government Shutdown As Self-Promotion and online at WSJ.com.