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65-Year-Olds Don't Go To Planned Parenthood for Abortions

Today's post is from Carole Joffe, author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us. Joffe is a professor in the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco.

5467119196_e521b5c1e7 Though many people are shocked by Congress’ recent withdrawl  of funds from Planned Parenthood clinics to provide family planning services, in fact right wing attacks on this organization are nothing new.   For example, the Texas legislature in late 2005 passed legislation that redirected millions of dollars from Planned Parenthood and other family planning providers in the state to Crisis Pregnancy Centers, organizations which promote pregnancy and offer no contraceptive services.  Here is an excerpt from a blog written by an impoverished Latina woman, “Tanya,” the day this new policy was announced:

So this morning I dragged myself out of bed before dawn to be at planned parenthood at 730 and wait in the freezing morning shade until 9 for my annual exam. At 930, myself and the 25 other women (of color) grumbled in solidarity and confusion, wondering why we were still waiting and shivering, finally an employee opened the doors, and corralled us inside just to inform us that there would be no walk-in exams today. or tomorrow. or ever. Boys at the texas state legislature cut pp’s funding by 40% last Friday.

I stood at the office stunned, while 3 mothers began to cry. Another woman, at least 65 years old, turned to me and asked, “que dijo?” (what did she say?). as I tried to explain what I still didn’t understand, I began to feel my anger swell. Overnight one of the safest, most reliable, most critical social services vanished.

As Tanya’s blog makes clear, low income women come to Planned parenthood clinics for a variety of services. As Planned Parenthood spokespersons endlessly repeat, only 3% of the organization’s services involve abortion, and no public funds are used to subsidize those procedures. The elderly woman mentioned in the blog was presumably there,  like Tanya herself, for an annual exam that includes breast and cervical cancer screenings, and Tanya was there as well for reduced -costs birth control pills.

Joffe So, to address the obvious question: why these attacks, at both the state and federal levels by virulent opponents of abortion, on an organization whose mission, contained in its very name, is to reduce unplanned pregnancies?  How did Planned Parenthood come to be so demonized? This after all, is an organization once so mainstream that the wife of conservative icon Barry Goldwater founded its Arizona chapter and in 1965 former presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower agreed to be co-chairs of an honorary advisory board.

For me, the two most compelling answers to this question lie in the reframing of contraception within antiabortion circles, and the continued dominance of the religious right in Republican circles, all the buzz about the Tea Party notwithstanding. As I discuss at greater length in my recent book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars, while once politicians on both sides of the abortion divide viewed contraception as true “common ground” (in the late 1970s, as a Texas congressman, George H.W. Bush was such an enthusiast for subsidized family planning, that his nickname in the House was “Rubbers”), over time this understanding broke down.

Particularly after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 with the active help of social conservatives, contraception, and the facilities that provided such services, such as Planned Parenthood clinics, came to be seen as “supportive of the abortion mentality,” because often these two services were delivered in the same building (albeit with strict separation of funding). Also, as abortion opponents frequently put it, with a certain logic, those who tried to prevent conception were more likely to choose an abortion if contraception failed.

In yet another evolution, the attack on contraception escalated from   being seen as “supportive” of abortion to actually  being an “abortifacient,” that is something that causes an “abortion.”  Therefore, by the late 1990s, the pharmacy became a new battleground in the U.S. reproductive wars, with numerous instances of “prolife”  pharmacists refusing to dispense both emergency contraception and “regular” birth control pills.

Finally, the attacks on Planned Parenthood (as well as other recent appalling legislation we have seen in Congress, for example the Orwellian named “Protect Life” act, which allows hospitals to deny abortions in life-threatening situations) are occurring because clearly the Republican leadership thinks such moves are good politics. The massive budget cuts proposed by Republicans, egged on by Tea Partiers, will not create jobs; indeed economists such as Paul Krugman have argued that such massive cuts are job weakening. Moreover, such cuts have the potential to create hardships for conservative families as well as the hated liberal ones, and in any case, these budgetary actions will not survive intact, after the Senate and the president deal with them. The one part of the Republican core constituencies that can be reliably rewarded is the religious right, an absolutely crucial group for the Party, both in terms of donations and precinct level electoral work.  

Of course, one can reasonably hope that neither the defunding of Planned Parenthood nor the various legislative attacks on abortion will survive either, in their present form, once they reach the Senate. But these votes reassure the base that their concerns are being heard, and most importantly, do serious damage by moving the “center” of reproductive politics farther to the right. It may be too much for the Democratic-led Senate or the president to defund Planned Parenthood entirely, but it will seem a reasonable compromise to significantly cut the group’s allotment, and to continue the longstanding policy of inadequately funding contraceptive services more generally. Maybe hospitals will not have the option of letting women die if an abortion would save their lives, but other cruel restrictions (refusing an abortion if it would cause serious health damage) will, again, be seen as acceptable—or at least, necessary--compromises. Until enough American voters see the absurdity of these compromises—not to mention the misogyny of denying poor women cancer screenings at a Planned Parenthood clinic—the United States will fall even further behind other industrialized countries with respect to basic reproductive health care.

Photo by S.MiRK on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.