You could say the relationship between Sen. Susan Collins and Planned Parenthood is like that between a clownfish and a sea anemone. Despite the exchange of an occasional sting or slight, they thrive and strive in symbiosis for women’s reproductive rights as the water around them grows more murky and toxic every day. Moderate Republicans face extinction and women’s rights are threatened, yet Collins’ star continues to rise and Planned Parenthood is stronger than ever. The paradox is in the numbers, as is the challenge.

Collins has been twice ranked the second-most popular senator in America and has an approval rating of 79 percent, on top of being re-elected in 2014 with close to 70 percent of the vote – without an endorsement by Planned Parenthood. Compare that with a 19 percent approval rating for Congress as a whole and the fate of moderate Republicans around the country ousted by the right-wing party fringe.

Planned Parenthood is 36 years older and almost as popular as Collins. The nonprofit organization that provides health care to 2.5 million people every year enjoys support from 70 percent of the population across the state, according to polling, including from people who voted for President Trump.

“This election went one way, but it was obviously not a mandate, and it was certainly not a mandate on repealing women’s health and rights,” Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told me Friday morning.

It makes dollars and sense that a majority of Americans support Planned Parenthood and want the federal government to continue reimbursing it to the tune of $550 million per year for providing life-saving services. It’s a fiscally conservative program. Access to contraception and education reduces unwanted pregnancies and therefore the number of abortions. The fiscal cost of providing preventive care is substantially less than treating illness. Teenagers who know about sexually transmitted diseases are less likely to contract them and need treatment. Defunding Planned Parenthood is like defunding the local fire department. Sounds good until it’s your house up in flames.

The budget reconciliation bill to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood, as well as the resolution voted on by the House to let states do it – a resolution, by the way, supported by Rep. Bruce Poliquin – are not like votes to defund all the local fire departments, though, just those departments that place the aspirations of the homeowner over others wishing to control her. “Defunding” Planned Parenthood means one of its doctors who screens a patient for cancer will not get reimbursed by Medicaid, but another doctor across the street or 100 miles down the road screening for cancer will get reimbursed.

A wildly popular and cost-effective health clinic that educates men and women, treats disease and prevents unwanted pregnancy, thereby reducing the number of abortions, would be supported by the people in Washington sent there to represent them, one might think – but the elephant in the room is the elephant in the room.

Collins is one of only two pro-choice Republican senators out of 52 who will cast their votes one way or the other, with only a simple majority needed to pass. Her vote is important, but that doesn’t mean she is or created the problem. In 2015, when the Senate passed a budget bill that eliminated federal money for Planned Parenthood and also repealed Obamacare, despite Collins attempt to fix it, the measure passed and was vetoed by President Obama. Another Republican senator who voted along the same lines, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, lost his seat the next year.

What’s past is prologue, and now there are even more Republicans. Even if Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska vote against the budget reconciliation bill that includes the repeal of Obamacare and defunding of Planned Parenthood, or a standalone bill of the same sort, a tie will go to Vice President Mike Pence, who as governor of Indiana crusaded for the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

The problem is that even though an overwhelming majority of people support Planned Parenthood, its mission and a woman’s legal right to self-determination, the majority of members of Congress do not. Unlike in 2015, when President Obama was a backstop, though, now we have Trump, who won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by 3 million votes and got only 42 percent of the women’s vote.

And then there are these numbers: Women are the majority in America, and 70 percent of all people support the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade that a constitutionally protected right of privacy extends to a woman’s decision to have an abortion. It’s the law of the land, largely supported by its inhabitants, but we are ruled by a White House, Senate, House and a majority of state legislatures made up of people for whom pregnancy is an impossibility.

Any law that defunds Planned Parenthood, either by itself or with the repeal of Obamacare, will go to a Supreme Court that is now evenly divided between four so-called liberals and four conservatives. Collins and Planned Parenthood are in agreement that tying the two issues together is problematic. One reason may be that Justice Anthony Kennedy – one of the so-called liberals – voted with the minority in 2012 that Obamacare, a law that also provides huge health benefits to women, is unconstitutional. He may welcome another opportunity to strike down the law regardless of any collateral damage to Planned Parenthood.

Like the clownfish and sea anemone, Collins and Planned Parenthood are different animals in an intricate relationship that if managed properly can provide mutual protection from predators.

Correction: This column was updated at 9:58 a.m. on Feb. 19 to correct the amount of federal funds Planned Parenthood receives per year. It is about $550 million.

Cynthia Dill is a civil rights lawyer and former state senator. She can be contacted at:

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