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Perry "Hates" Cancer, but Budget Cuts Slash HPV Tests

Photo illustration by Todd Wiseman / Gage Skidmore / Ed Uthman

On the presidential campaign trail, Gov. Rick Perry has explained his much-maligned effort to make the human papillomavirus vaccine mandatory for school-aged girls by saying he hates the cervical cancer it causes and will “always err on the side of savings lives.”

Yet he gets some of his biggest applause in early primary states when he brags of signing a state budget that largely defunds Planned Parenthood — which provides four times more cervical cancer screenings every year in Texas than abortions.

Perry and lawmakers curtailed funding for Planned Parenthood earlier this year by cutting the state's family planning budget by nearly 66 percent, from $111.5 million last biennium to $37.9 million in the next two years. In Texas, these state-funded family planning services have included birth control, STD testing, breast cancer exams, and pap smears that screen for HPV, the virus that can lead to cervical cancer — but not abortions.

In 2010, state family planning funds paid for 133,691 women to receive cervical cancer screenings. According to health reports, 12,787 women had abnormal test results that merited follow-up treatment. During that same year, Planned Parenthood reports its health centers provided screenings for a total of 104,604 women in Texas, with more than 13,000 abnormal pap smears.

Though Planned Parenthood was the target of the recent cuts, the budget reduction narrowed the funding streams for a slew of federally qualified health centers and community clinics too. Under a new priority funding system, the state also declined to renew contracts with 15 providers, including nine non-Planned Parenthood agencies. 

Sandie Haverlah, a political consultant and lobbyist for Planned Parenthood in Texas, said the governor’s public words on the campaign trail do not match up with his actions.

“They use Planned Parenthood as a poster child, but the reality is they cut [funding] for all these groups,” Haverlah said. “If he really did care about women and cancer screenings and trying to cure this disease, he wouldn’t have cut the funding." 

But the governor’s office says there's nothinghypocritcal about "hating" cervical cancer while opposing state funding for Planned Parenthood. In a statement emailed to the Tribune, Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said, “Planned Parenthood is by no means the only organization that provides these screenings, and Gov. Perry continues to support efforts that prevent taxpayer dollars going to this organization and others like it that promote and performabortions.”

Frazier went on to say Texas provides “a safety net to those that most need it” throughtheWomen’sHealth Program, a Medicaid program for low-income women who qualify.

But the biggest provider for the Women's Health Program is Planned Parenthood, with its network of 66 clinics around the state. An effort is currently under way to remove these clinics from the list of eligible providers because of their affiliation — in some cases, in name only — with Planned Parenthood branches that do offer abortions.

“If we lose Planned Parenthood, it just adds to the number of women who won’t receive screenings,” said Anne Dunkelberg, the associate director of the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Perry’s anti-abortion allies say they do not trust Planned Parenthood and argue the governor's perspectives do not conflict. 

“Absolutely not,” said Cathie Adams, the former chairwoman of the Republican PartyofTexasand a well-known opponent of abortion rights. “Planned Parenthood is the No. 1 abortion provider in the world, and to try to put a facade over that, [they] say that what they do is health services as well? It’s a miniscule amount of what they do in their clinics.”

Other than his position on offering in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, Perry has taken the most heat on the GOP presidential trail for his 2007 executive order making the HPV vaccine mandatory for adolescent girls — a move that was quickly overturned by the state Legislature.

In town halls across Florida and Iowa, Perry has conceded that he went about it the wrong way and that there should’ve been a better consent system. But he uses anti-abortion language that resonates with his Christian conservative base to explain his actions, saying that because he’s “firmly on the side of protecting life,” he wanted to do everything in his power to curb the sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer. (In 2007, 4,000 U.S. women died of cervical cancer and another 12,000 were diagnosed with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control.)

To these same voters, Perry shores up his anti-abortion credentials by saying he’s the most “pro-life governor in Texas history” and reminding them he signed a state budget this year that cut funding from Planned Parenthood, whose clinics do not perform abortions if they’re receiving state or federal funds. As president, he says, he would strip “the more than $300 million that currently flows to Planned Parenthood” from federal coffers.   

Though Adams was vocal in her criticism of Perry’s initial HPV vaccine roll-out, she said all is forgiven.

“This is where Gov. Perry has been absolutely the best," she said. "He’s listens to people and accepts a different direction if that’s what’s called for. And he does that without carrying a sour attitude about it."

Reproductive-rights advocates like Haverlah disagree. They maintain that the governor’s ideology and political ties are leading to questionable health policies.

“The family planning funding they cut went across the board, and it’s just proof that what he did with HPV was a political move and a favor for ... the folks lobbying for the drug companies,” Haverlah said.

Emily Ramshaw investigates state agencies and covers social services for KUT's political reporting partner, the Texas Tribune. Previously, she spent six years reporting for The Dallas Morning News, first in Dallas, then in Austin. In April 2009 she was named Star Reporter of the Year by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Headliners Foundation of Texas. Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, she received a bachelor's degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Thanh Tan is a multimedia reporter/producer for The Texas Tribune. She previously worked at Idaho Public Television, a PBS station that serves a statewide audience. While there, she was an Emmy award-winning producer/reporter/host for the longest-running legislative public affairs program in the West, Idaho Reports, moderator of The Idaho Debates, and a writer/producer for the flagship series Outdoor Idaho. Prior to joining IdahoPTV, she was a general assignment reporter at the ABC affiliate in Portland, OR and a political reporter for KBCI-TV in Boise, ID. Her work has also appeared on the PBS NewsHour and This American Life. She graduated with honors from the University of Southern California with degrees in International Relations and Broadcast Journalism.