A crowd of about 65 pink-clad men and women gathered outside the Planned Parenthood health clinic in Santa Barbara yesterday evening, toting signs and T-shirts with the message “I Stand with Planned Parenthood,” as funding for the national nonprofit women’s health-care provider continues to be threatened by the Republican promise to repeal Obamacare. The repeal bill has shape-shifted continually during a tumultuous week on the Senate floor.
The rally was met by an equally fervent group of counterprotesters of roughly the same size, who lined up on the Garden Street sidewalk opposite the Health Center. Frequently breaking out in song and prayer, the pro-life advocates had come from San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Thousand Oaks, representing all five cities served by the affiliate health centers that compose Planned Parenthood’s California Central Coast branch, according to Teresa Marsano, a group leader of Californians for Life from San Luis Obispo. “I was pleasantly surprised to see how many turned out. The pro-life movement is clearly growing in Santa Barbara,” said Andres Riofrio, the Santa Barbaran who organized the counterprotest.
Planned Parenthood had organized “flash” rallies across the country and in Washington, D.C., last night in response to a split Senate vote on health care Tuesday, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote. This allowed the Senate to begin 20 hours of debate on a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) under special budget rules that preclude a Democratic filibuster.
Julie Mickelberry, vice president of Planned Parenthood Central Coast Action Fund, delivered a somber message through her megaphone. “In all of its various forms, this bill is the worst bill for women in a generation. From ending maternity coverage and the birth-control benefit for millions to blocking women’s access to preventive care at Planned Parenthood, every version of Trumpcare has been devastating to women.” She urged supporters to remain engaged, make noise on social media, and encourage friends and family in other states to make calls to their Republican senators.
On Tuesday night, yet another version of a repeal-and-replace” bill was rejected when nine Republicans defected on a vote that required a 60-vote supermajority. By Wednesday night, dead too was a “partial repeal,” though only a simple majority was required. A third “skinny repeal” has yet to meet its uncertain fate as of press time. The bill includes language to defund Planned Parenthood and would eliminate only the least popular components of Obamacare, like a medical device tax and the individual and employer insurance mandates, but leave other programs, like Medicaid, intact. Meanwhile, Republicans continue to tinker with proposals behind closed doors before a final vote that is expected Friday.
Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) could cast a key swing vote, according to Mickelberry. Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval was one of five Republican and five Democratic governors who jointly penned a letter on Wednesday night, urging the Senate to kill the “skinny repeal” bill. Mickelberry encouraged the rally’s participants to return on Thursday at 5 p.m. to the Planned Parenthood clinic on Garden Street, to participate in a phone bank to call Planned Parenthood supporters in Nevada, urging them to apply pressure on Senator Heller.
While the language used at the Planned Parenthood rally centered on access to women’s health care generally, the focus on the other side of the street was abortion. “Health care should be put back in the hands of federal health-care system, not a private entity,” said Marsano, who emphasized that she did not support cutting funding for women’s health but rather to “close abortion businesses” and “redirect funding” to organizations that do not conduct abortions.
A brief verbal back-and-forth ensued when a resident of SBCAST — Santa Barbara Center for Art, Science & Technology, before which the counterprotest took place — crossed the street to tell counterprotesters that he was both “pro-life and pro-choice” and that “99 percent of what Planned Parenthood does is not abortion.” A software engineer who works as an LED light artist, John Lawrence and his partner are expecting in November and have used Planned Parenthood services during the pregnancy.
In California, Democratic senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein have been staunch supporters of the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood, along with Santa Barbara Congressmember Salud Carbajal. On the Central Coast, Planned Parenthood serves 33,000 men and women at its five affiliate locations, and nearly 70 percent of those patients access those services through the Family PACT program, Medicare, Medi-Cal, an Medicaid Managed Care, according to Mickelberry, who said that “close to 800,000 Californians would be blocked from choosing Planned Parenthood as their health-care provider” if it gets defunded.
“If [Republicans] don’t defund Planned Parenthood with this bill, they’re going to try through tax reform. That is why this is not a sprint; this is a marathon. This is a prolonged fight,” said Mickelberry after the rally.