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Contraception, Pell Grants 'In Context' After Debate


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel. And we're going to take some time now to put a couple of assertions from last night's presidential debate in context. And here in the studio to help us out are NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner and NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez. Nice to see both of you here.


JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

SIEGEL: And, Julie, first to you. One of the issues that came up last night in a discussion of equal pay for women was contraceptive coverage and funding for Planned Parenthood. Here's part of what President Obama had to say.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When Governor Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country who rely on Planned Parenthood for not just contraceptive care. They rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That's a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country.

SIEGEL: Julie Rovner, Mitt Romney denies the charge that he wants to make contraception illegal, but he didn't address this Planned Parenthood issue.

ROVNER: No, he didn't. And, in fact, Mitt Romney has said many times that he would like to pull federal funding from Planned Parenthood. And the president has been using that as a wedge issue to try to win women's support, and the president has been leading with women.

But it's a balancing act for both candidates because President Obama's requirement in the federal health law - that most health insurance plans pay for contraceptive coverage - has been very unpopular with the Catholic Church and therefore with some Catholic voters in swing states.

But the idea of repealing that law and letting employers decide whether or not birth control should be covered by insurance and of pulling funding for Planned Parenthood, which gets about 40 percent of its funding from federal and state governments, has proved pretty unpopular. So unpopular, in fact, that Romney, who's been pretty strongly antiabortion, is out today with a more moderate ad meant to appeal to women voters. Let's hear a little bit of it.


SIEGEL: And the woman in the ad is saying that Romney's position is different from that of the Republican platform which, indeed, would ban abortions in those circumstances.

ROVNER: And a little bit different from what Romney himself has been saying, or at least different in tone. You know, recent polls have shown a bit of narrowing of that gender gap with Romney catching up some with women. He wants to reassure them that he wouldn't ban birth control. But the fact is that his position, by cutting off federal funding to Planned Parenthood and allowing employers not to offer it in their health insurance, would make birth control less available for those with limited incomes.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner. Thank you, Julie.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: And now, we turn to another issue that came up last night, higher education, in particular, funding for higher education. Here's what Mitt Romney had to say.

MITT ROMNEY: I want to make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing. We're also going to have our loan program so that people are able to afford school.

SIEGEL: Claudio Sanchez, two things Romney said: He talked about Pell Grants, he talked about student loans. But did he, in any way, change his tune on those issues last night?

SANCHEZ: He did not change his tune in a big way, but it's the lack of details that Mr. Romney is providing, especially on the Pell Grant program, that really is hard to pinpoint because what he's saying does not jive entirely with some of the suggestions that have been made that under a Romney administration and certainly with Mr. Paul Ryan's - his running mate's position on cutting education - it's going to be very hard to keep the kind of funding that's in place now intact.

SIEGEL: The president has made much of taking the banks out of the student loan programs, saving - I think it's $62 billion by eliminating that subsidy and using that money for student aid. Where does the Romney campaign stand on student loans and private banks?

SANCHEZ: There, Mr. Romney has been very firm. He says he wants to restore the role of private lenders and banks to the old program, which essentially subsidized these student loans by allowing banks and private lenders to issue these loans and essentially recover their full amount, as well as get a nice profit with it.

SIEGEL: They were guaranteed as if they were government loans, actually.

SANCHEZ: Yes, they were.

SIEGEL: Back to Pell Grants. He says they're going to keep the Pell Grant program growing. You referred to Representative Ryan's budget proposals that would reduce virtually anything in domestic spending. Was there actually a cut proposed to Pell Grants?

SANCHEZ: There is no specific cut being proposed by Mr. Romney, because Mr. Romney essentially says he's not going to cut aid for low-income students. The Romney campaign does, though, talk about refocusing Pell Grants on students who need the most, which could mean he could reduce the number of people on Pell Grants by raising the eligibility requirements.

In other words, you'd have to be poorer to qualify. And to be eligible right now, your family income cannot be over $50,000, more or less. Now, in the big picture, though, is that while significantly cutting Pell Grants is politically unlikely, debating who should be eligible for Pell Grants is a matter that Congress will take up regardless of who's president.

SIEGEL: Thank you, NPR's Claudio Sanchez and Julie Rovner.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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