Yesterday, Planned Parenthood claimed a crucial victory to fight the spread of HIV in Memphis. The battle was not easily won.
Back on November 22nd, the County informed Planned Parenthood that it had been awarded a contract for condom distribution services for 2017, a continuation of an HIV prevention service the organization has provided since 2013. The procession initially moved along as normal. The contract gained the approval of the Director of Community Services, County Budget Director, County Finance Department, County Attorney's Office, and the Chief Administrative Officer, while the Community Services Committee highly recommended the contract to the Commissioners.
On the January 9th County Commissioners meeting, the resolution to approve the contract awards for high-impact HIV prevention programs was withdrawn from the agenda, and it didn’t seem as if the County would resubmit the resolution for approval at a future meeting. That would mean no funding for HIV prevention services.
This isn’t the first time Planned Parenthood has struggled to secure funding. In 2012, the Tennessee Department of Health refused to approve similar grants to Planned Parenthood due to its advocacy and provision of abortion services. In that instance, the Court found that the Department had unconstitutionally penalized Planned Parenthood.
This year, with the County claiming that the Shelby County Health Department could do a better job of distributing condoms and litigation imminent, a letter sent by the Tennessee Department of Health on January 27th laid out the consequences of blocking the grant. Citing the 2012 case, the letter stated that reneging on the contract could cost Shelby County up to $407,000 in grants for preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. A vote at the next Commission meeting didn’t quite have the numbers to add a discussion of the grant to the agenda, with the Committee Chairman David Reaves declining to hear public comments on the issue.
The votes necessary to put the grant item back on the agenda were acquired at yesterday’s meeting, and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted 7-5 to approve the $115,000 grant to Planned Parenthood, with Justin Ford, Eddie Jones Jr., Van Turner Jr., Melvin Burgess, Walter Bailey Jr., Willie Brooks Jr., and Reginald Milton voting in favor.
However, the political opposition is still there. Shelby County Mayor Mark Lutrell and Commissioner Heidi Shaffer both expressed a desire to bring condom distribution in-house in the future.
According to Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region CEO Ashley Coffield: “Shelby County finds 300-400 new HIV cases per year and has the highest rate of newly diagnosed HIV cases in Tennessee. The incidence of chlamydia infections in Shelby County is double the statewide rate and more than double the national rate. Left untreated, chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, hospitalization, and infertility. The teen birth rate in Shelby County is higher than the state and nationwide teen birth rate.”
Those are definitely problems that need fixing, which raises some serious questions about the motivations of those in charge of making these decisions. Commissioner Terry Roland, with his recent #babykillers tweet, made it clear that his was a politically motivated decision to vote against approving the contract.
It seems a ridiculous question to raise, but are politics really more important than women’s healthcare? Planned Parenthood’s abortion services, a very small part of what their organization provides, have been used to block a completely unrelated service to the community. One hundred percent of the grant money will go toward the HIV prevention program.