See more of our coverage on the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.
As reproductive politics are once again consumed by an attack on Planned Parenthood, it is worth stepping back and asking why this organization is so particularly reviled by the anti-choice movement. This is a demonization that goes well beyond the shady outfit, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), that organized the latest undercover filming, or its affiliated group, Live Action, infamous for releasing other debunked videos over the last decade. True, Planned Parenthood was reportedly not CMP’s only target, but the videos taken of its physicians have been the only ones to be released. Some Congressional Republicans, we now know, had prior knowledge of these videos, and predictably have issued calls for an investigation of the organization, joined by various Republican presidential aspirants. The videos have also given new ammunition to Republicans’ annual efforts to withhold all funds from Planned Parenthood for Title X services (primarily contraception and cancer screenings), which are subject to a yearly review. In short, the puzzle is why a national health-care organization—in which, as its spokespersons repeatedly point out, abortion only comprises 3 percent of all services delivered—is such a prime target of abortion opponents.
One answer, of course, is size: Even if only 3 percent of its services are abortion, Planned Parenthood still performs a healthy share of all the procedures occurring in the United States. But the answer goes well beyond that. It speaks to an interesting historical split among Republicans over matters of reproduction and sexuality—and the eventual triumph of the most socially conservative wing among the party base.
Before it became seemingly mandatory for Republican political figures to condemn Planned Parenthood, many were enthusiastic supporters. In a step that would be unheard of today, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former Republican president, agreed in 1965 to to co-chair an honorary Planned Parenthood board along with Harry Truman, a former Democratic president. The conservative icon Barry Goldwater and his wife, Peggy, were stalwart supporters of the Planned Parenthood chapter in Arizona. Sen. Prescott Bush was a strong advocate of the organization and of contraceptive services in general, as was his son, George H.W. Bush, during his time as a Texas congressman, though the latter had to renounce his support in order to become acceptable as a vice-presidential candidate for Ronald Reagan in 1980 (who himself had some years earlier signed a bill liberalizing abortion in California). Mitt Romney, who famously said in the 2012 presidential campaign that he would “get rid” of Planned Parenthood, had attended a fundraiser for the organization with his wife some years earlier, where she had made a donation. And of course it was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who in 1970 signed into law the aforementioned Title X, the nation’s only legislation specifically for family planning services. Planned Parenthood became a significant grantee of this new program.
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To be sure, this mainstream conservative support for Planned Parenthood’s widespread ability to provide contraceptives was not always rooted in the best of motives. The field of family planning has always contained contradictory impulses of population control as well as women’s liberation, and some of the early supporters of Planned Parenthood were involved with the eugenics movement that was prominent in the first part of the 20th century. Later, the disproportionate location of Title X clinics (some associated with Planned Parenthood) in Black areas shortly after the bill was passed, along with the history of racism and classism in many arenas of medical care, created a lingering distrust of the organization in some sectors of that community, on which the anti-abortion movement has long tried to capitalize. Prominent Black leaders, however, including Martin Luther King Jr. (who accepted Planned Parenthood’s first Margaret Sanger Award in 1966) supported the organization and were, as King put it, “sympathetic” with its “total work.”
The real hardcore animosity toward the organization that lasts to this day, though, has its roots in the emergence of the religious right as a force in Republican politics in the 1970s. As a fundraising appeal of an anti-abortion group put it in 1980, “Planned Parenthood promotes sexual perversion, homosexuality, pornography, abortion, family destruction, population control.” As the quote makes clear, far more than Planned Parenthood’s connection with abortion caused such wrath. The organization’s provision of contraception and its commitment to offering confidential services to teenagers, both made possible through its Title X funding, have been particularly enraging to sexual conservatives. Though abortion may have served as the “battering ram,” as Rosalind Petchesky aptly put it, to mobilize the religious right, in fact, conservative groups oppose all sexuality that does not take place within heterosexual marriage in order to procreate.
Because of its size and history as a recipient of public funding, Planned Parenthood, of course, serves as a useful symbol of an enabler of out-of-control sexual behavior. Contraception’s brief moment of acting as “common ground” between abortion supporters and opponents shortly after the Roe decision in 1973 broke down as the religious right gained strength throughout the 1970s and beyond; the religious right increasingly began to frame contraception as “supportive of the abortion mentality” rather than as something that prevented abortion.
It is too soon to tell what the political fallout will be from this latest attack on Planned Parenthood. Right now, there are two competing narratives about this incident. There is that of CMP and its political allies, which attempts to convince the public that Planned Parenthood is “selling” fetal tissue, in spite of clear evidence, even on the edited tapes, that this is not the case; and that of Planned Parenthood, which is that the undercover operatives used unethical and illegal means to promote lies about the organization’s practices. (A third narrative that this case could have evoked is disappointingly missing thus far—scientists testifying to the importance of research using fetal tissue and the social good that donation by abortion patients represents). Anti-abortionists’ efforts to use Planned Parenthood as a wedge issue in the 2012 election cycle were a dismal failure; analysts acknowledge that the organization’s support of Obama, symbolized by the high visibility of Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood’s telegenic president, at campaign events, was a plus. Thus far, polling data have not shown any appreciable drop in support for Planned Parenthood as a result of the videos, and most Americans continue to support the organization, which at least one in five U.S. women will visit at some point.
How U.S. residents will ultimately come to view this controversy—that is, which of the two competing narratives mentioned above will prevail—might be an interesting test case of whether the realities of people’s sexual and reproductive lives in the 21st century are making the religious right an increasingly irrelevant force, in spite of its current hold on Republican politicians.