When the Stafford, Virginia-based American Life League (ALL) was formed in 1979 as an explicitly Catholic voice for social conservatism, even groups like the National Right to Life Committee considered it extreme. By coupling opposition to abortion with opposition to contraception, ALL took on a dual agenda that many abortion opponents considered un-winnable.
But the group has not wavered, denouncing every method of birth control but the rhythm method and lambasting providers of reproductive health care while zeroing in on the organization it considers its arch enemy, Planned Parenthood. Judie Brown—one of ALL’s founders and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, from 1996 to 2011—makes the group’s position clear on the organization’s website:
The failure to reject contraception leads to abortion—plain and simple. The most popular argument that proves this point is, “If my birth control fails, I need to get rid of my problem;” the “problem” was the mindset that led to the use of contraception in the first place. This initial rejection of the natural law has led to all manner of deviation from moral law, ethics, and common sense.
ALL’s position has remained unchanged for 34 years. Nonetheless, its language and vitriol have ramped up in recent months. ALL’s Stop Planned Parenthood, or STOPP, project has created a five-minute video called “Planned Parenthood’s Corporate Carnage,” which was narrated by Michael Hitchborn, director of ALL’s Defend the Faith program and is available on YouTube. The video is intended to win the hearts and minds of parents and assumes a prudish desire to shield children and teens from all things sexual. Buzzwords such as “pervert” and “pornography” are bellowed in a shrill effort to grab their attention.
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It’s the anti-Planned Parenthood equivalent of Reefer Madness, covering the themes of birth control and comprehensive sex education. Hitchborn begins, “Just as the goal of a drug dealer is to make drug addicts, the goal of Planned Parenthood is the make sex addicts”—a population of consumers ready to purchase pills, condoms, sex toys, abortions, and whatever other “unnatural” tools are available. He then blasts the illustrated textbook It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, and Sexual Health, by Robie H. Harris and Michel Emberley, which is used as a Planned Parenthood training manual that—gasp—offers the message that it is not wrong for us to touch our genitals. “Planned Parenthood’s gateway drug is masturbation,” Hitchborn says. “If a dirty old man showed these pictures to kids in a park, he’d be arrested.” Looking directly at his audience, Hitchborn confides that by showing kids depictions of sex organs, Planned Parenthood is trying to “dispel embarrassment.” Ah, the horror of matter-of-factly presenting oral sex, anal and vaginal penetration, and mutual masturbation as options for healthy sexual expression.
An even more egregious affront to decency, he adds, is the fact that Planned Parenthood treats lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender kids as no more psychologically defective or predatory than heterosexuals. By introducing straight youth to the LGBTQ community, Hitchborn believes Planned Parenthood is intentionally exposing them “to sexual deviancy.” Even more bizarre, he adds that the unmistakable goal of such educational efforts is the “restructuring of the family.” He then concludes that Planned Parenthood’s agenda is little more than “a sick form of population control.”
In the world according to ALL, Planned Parenthood is attempting to turn U.S. youth into sex addicts so it can sell them contraception and abortion while simultaneously working to reduce the number of people in the United States.
If you’re shaking your head in confusion, rest assured that I don’t get it either.
But weird political statements and contradictions aside, the bottom line is that for ALL, anything other than heterosexual intercourse for the express purpose of procreation within marriage is “sexual sin.” In the group’s eyes, talking to tweens or teens about how bodies work, and the pleasure they can provide, is immoral. ALL has singled out a program funded by New York state and run by Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood (UHPP), called Seriously Talking About Responsible Sex (STARS), as an especially dastardly offender.
In actual fact, the program trains ten male and female teens a year to be peer sex educators. Among the messages dispensed: that they should delay sexual initiation until both parties are ready, that it can be beneficial to limit their number of partners, and that they can negotiate and communicate about sex. They’re also instructed on the correct use of condoms and other forms of birth control. According to Meaghan Carroll, director of education at UHPP, STARS also takes participants on college tours, provides training in financial literacy, and helps them develop strategies to improve parent-child relationships.
UHPP also offers minors a chance to attend a weekly youth-only clinic where they can see a health professional, ask questions, and meet other kids. Not surprisingly, the clinic gets rave reviews from users while sending ALL into a near-apoplectic fit. For ALL, programs like STARS are wholly responsible for the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as if ignorance better protects kids against STIs and pregnancy than concrete, factual, proven-to-be-effective sexual education programs.
For her part, UHPP’s Meaghan Carroll states that besides offering free or low-cost health care to kids who might otherwise go without, “the biggest thing that comes up at the weekly clinic is that many of the kids have never been to a doctor by themselves. They can be intimidated by adults so we help them develop the skills to be more self-reliant.”
This secondary gain doesn’t impress ALL. Instead, the group remains fixated on Planned Parenthood, because it depicts sex as a fun, playful, joyous part of life that can be controlled by individuals beginning in adolescence and lasting into old age.
At the same time, I can’t help but think that an additional issue ALL has is operative. Planned Parenthood is funded in part by government contracts, a fact that sticks in ALL’s organizational throat and likely incites at least some of its fury. If ALL is as concerned about pervasive sexual imagery as it purports to be, it would be in the group’s interest to protest against the many businesses that use such imagery to sell everything from cars to shampoo. ALL board members—including broadcaster Bob Dolan (brother of New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan), ultra-right-wing commentator and former presidential contender Alan Keyes, and Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association, to say nothing of Michael Hitchborn and Judie Brown—have remained woefully silent on this topic. Isn’t it high time to ask them to explain their reticence?
For more information and investigation into the work of the American Life League, please see Opposition Notes, a series of investigative fact sheets from Catholics for Choice.