Planned Parenthood provides basic health care services to millions nationwide, but opponents say the family planning group needs to be more specific about where funding is allocated.

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

More than 100 students, faculty members, health care providers, legislators and members of the public attended an 8 a.m. panel discussion this Friday, with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), national CEO of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards, and Montana Planned Parenthood Director Stacey James.

Richards, who is former deputy chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi, has been one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people in the world for the last two years.

The 90-minute discussion covered women’s health care, family planning, the Affordable Care Act, and the state of Planned Parenthood. It was part of a three-day tour in which Richards attended seven events in Missoula, Helena, Big Timber, Billings and Bozeman.

“This is the most important election of my lifetime, in my teens’ lifetime, as far as women’s health and reproductive freedom,” James said. James also spoke about ballot initiative CI 108, which is sponsored by the Montana Pro-Life Coalition and would redefine ‘personhood.’

PPMT, which has more than 17,000 patients statewide, is collecting voter pledges not to sign the initiative. James said the proposed law could ban access to birth control, emergency contraception, in vitro fertilization and abortion in Montana.

Dr. Bucacek has disputed these claims, saying in an email that the bill “should not affect IVG, emergency contraception or cause investigations of women nor contraceptions.”

Sen. Tester talked about his wife and two daughters, and about the Affordable Health Care Act, which is now in the Supreme Court.

“This is an attack out there like I’ve never seen before,” he said. “Over Easter I visited with my daughter, and I said, ‘this is a fight that your mother didn’t have to fight. This is a fight your grandmother fought.’”

He encouraged the crowd to get involved, whether writing letters to the editor, coming to meetings like this, or talking to neighbors, relatives and friends.

“It’s important that common sense is inserted into this equation because it doesn’t appear there’s a lot back in D.C. Things are not going to get better unless you step up.”

Richards, who has worked with Planned Parenthood since 2006, said the group has more than 6 million advocates and 3 million patients nationwide. She said the group offers more services than some may recognize.

“Our main goal is prevention,” she said. “We do more than any other organization to prevent unplanned pregnancies, provide basic health care, and increase education.” Nationwide, Richards said, the group’s online user numbers are “through the roof,” with people accessing information.

Ninety percent of services are preventative, she said, and include 730,000 annual breast exams, 7,000 annual pap smears, and STD testing for both male and female patients.

Women’s health care shouldn’t be political, Richards said, it’s about giving people access to affordable health care.

Opponents say there are other options out there for affordable care, like community health clinics, which don’t provide access to abortions.

“The funds go to [Planned Parenthood] generally, and it doesn’t specify whether those funds are used to kill unborn children or for pelvic exams and pap smears,” said Dr. Anne Bukacek, president of the Montana Pro-life Coalition. “So, a certain portion of the funds are used for killing unborn humans. That’s the problem.” If they were capable of specifying where the funds go, that might be a different story, Bukacek said.

The bill would eliminate preventative services for millions of people, Richards said, adding that “for many people, that’s the only doctor they see all year.” Because 99 percent of American women use birth control at some point in their lives, she said, this is also an economic issue.

“The stakes for women in this country are very, very high in this election,” she said.

“Having health care choices happens because of good policy making,” Tester said of the upcoming election.

“The only thing that trumps money is people,” he said. “This baby’s a watershed election because of the influence that money can have.” Millions of outside dollars will be coming into Montana to determine the Senate race, on which the balance of Congress may lie.

Events like this are important to help people understand what Planned Parenthood actually does, said sophomore Jordan Larsen, after the panel had adjourned. Larsen is vice chair of the MSU College Democrats and a member of Montana Advocates for Sexual Health.

“It doesn’t matter what side of the line you’re on—everyone can agree that the most important thing when it comes to sexual health is prevention. And getting the actual information out there so people can vote for what’s right.”

Local groups involved in the event included the MSU Students for Choice, the MSU Women’s Center, the Dean of Students, the College Democrats, Bridger Care and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana.