Commentary Politics

Religious Right’s Grip on Republican Party Makes Planned Parenthood a Prime Target

Carole Joffe

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.

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.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

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