During Monday's regular meeting of the Shelby County Commission, a dispute on continuing Planned Parenthood's involvement in a local, state-funded HIV-prevention program was resolved — sort of — in a fashion that reveals the political fault lines not only of Shelby County but, to some extent, of the state and nation as well.
After a considerable amount of testimony, both pro and con, from an audience that seemingly filled the first-floor auditorium of the Vasco A. Smith Jr. County Administration Building to capacity, the commission finally approved a grant of $115,000 — the first of five scheduled annual ones — to support the renewal of a condom-distribution program overseen by Planned Parenthood. Three other local agencies had previously been authorized without incident for equivalent shares of a total grant package of $407,000.
Amid warnings from both the Tennessee Department of Health and the county administration that failure to do so might endanger the entire package, the commission approved the Planned Parenthood grant, seven to five, with the vote being a clean split along political lines — the commission's seven Democrats voting in favor, and the body's six Republicans demurring, five voting no and one, Commissioner Mark Billingsley, recusing himself on grounds of his professional association with Le Bonheur Community Health and Well-Being, one of the three organizations whose HIV grants had already been endorsed by the commission. The ot
her two were Friends for Life Corp. and Partnership to End AIDS Status.
For the record, voting aye were Van Turner (a Planned Parenthood board member who termed support for Planned Parenthood "a matter of life and death"),Walter Bailey, Reginald Milton, Eddie Jones, Willie Brooks, Justin Ford, and chairman Melvin Burgess — all Democrats (and all African Americans, as are, as was pointedly noted during the debate, a majority of the county's HIV cases).
Voting no were Republicans Heidi Shafer, Terry Roland, David Reaves, George Chism, and Steve Basar.
The difference between Planned Parenthood's treatment and that of the other three state-designated grant recipients clearly had to do with Planned Parenthood's long-term status as an abortion provider, although the agency's opponents on the commission tended to couch their opposition — for tactical reasons, it would seem — on their stated belief that the county Health Department could better carry out the services required by the grant.
Planned Parenthood has frequently been the subject of controversy in commission votes over the years — notably in 2011, when a commission majority narrowly supported a recommendation by Republican Mayor Mark Luttrell that Christ Community Health Centers supplant Planned Parenthood, which had been the traditional recipient of new federal Title X funds to administer a variety of women's medical services.
Abortion had been the elephant in the room for that debate, too, though proponents of the change over stressed such other points as the greater number of physical venues available through Christ Community Health Centers. In the final reckoning, CCHC's religious orientation may also have attracted enough Democratic votes to join with Republicans in determining the outcome.
It was no secret then, however, and is no secret now that governmental defunding of Planned Parenthood programs at local, state, and federal levels is essentially a Republican goal, with Democrats tending to support the agency, and differing attitudes toward abortion determining the divide. Over the years, that fact of political life has been as crucial as economic factors in determining the two parties' working coalitions.
Though Luttrell's administration had matter-of-factly included Planned Parenthood as a recipient back in December, when the grants were first announced publicly and the controversy was ignited, the mayor and county CAO Harvey Kennedy played a middle role of sorts in Monday's debate.
Both argued stoutly that the county Health Department could perform HIV prevention services as well as, if not better than, Planned Parenthood. But both, significantly, urged caution in view of a letter from the state Department of Health advising that denial of Planned Parenthood for "extraneous," (i.e., political) reasons might invite judicial intervention that could invalidate the totality of the $407,000 grant — a sum that all parties agreed was needed in view of mounting HIV and STD cases in Shelby County.
Monday's debate was spirited among audience members, a majority favoring Planned Parenthood for stated reasons of public health, while a minority opposed the grant, some boosting the Health Department, while others spoke to the formally unspoken issue: abortion.
Some of the latter were graphic in the extreme, with one opponent contending that Planned Parenthood was "founded by racists ... and killed more than the Nazis and KKK combined." Another, Don Ware, who frequently testifies at public meetings on behalf of conservative causes, drew jeers and dismissive laughter when he said that "the business of Planned Parenthood is legalized murder."
There was an ironic moment, pointing up the varying secular and religious motives among disputants, when, after Ware contended that "God is opposed" to Planned Parenthood's activities, a voice was heard from the audience counterpointing that with a sardonic "Oh, God!"
The Almighty, it would seem, kept His own counsel in the matter.
• Another matter on which local opinions are sharply divided surfaced anew last Thursday with the presentation in the City Hall conference room of a voluntary de-annexation proposal for Memphis by the Strategic Footprint Review Task Force.
The city/county group was appointed last year after a near-miss in the General Assembly of a far-reaching bill that would have authorized relatively easy and extensive ways for communities to detach themselves from the state's major cities.
Details of the task force proposal are covered online in "Political Beat" on the Memphis Flyer website.