New Tactics and Coalitions Take Aim at Planned Parenthood
Adele M. Stan is a journalist, blogger and editorial consultant whose work appears in The Guardian, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones Online. She authors the blog AddieStan: A breakaway republic of the mind addiestan.blogspot.com and is a featured blogger for The Huffington Post.
For the leaders and workers of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, attacks from right-wing foes are nothing new. Almost from the moment that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, the federation and its clinics have been in the sights of right-wing activists, most horrifically in 1994 during the harrowing siege of a Brookline, Massachusetts, clinic when a gunman took the lives of two workers in the name of God.
Indeed major anti-abortion groups recently came together in a master coalition using old time pressure tactics aimed at stripping Planned Parenthood of its government funding. See box below.
But a new generation is using new media tactics to challenge Planned Parenthood, while paying lip service to progressive values, saying the reproductive services organization violates norms of racial justice and fails to protect minors from sexual predators. At the pivot point where the Right’s wedge-driving themes converge sits a 20-year-old college student who has found stardom on YouTube.
Lila Rose, who leads the sting group, Live Action, is winning fame by going to abortion clinics, armed with a hidden camera, posing as a young teenager. In a clinic in Los Angeles and at two others in Indiana, Rose and a colleague recorded clinic personnel who appear to advise Rose to either alter her own (fictional) age or not to mention the age of the fictional older man who supposedly impregnated her. This would allow the clinic personnel to avoid reporting the case to child protective services.
Rose’s sting at an Indianapolis clinic she visited in June resulted in Planned Parenthood dismissing a clinic counselor named Janet after Live Action released the video in December. Janet had assured the girlish-voiced Rose that she didn’t care how old Rose’s boyfriend was after Rose said that she didn’t want to get him in trouble.1 As the Associated Press reported, “Indiana law requires anyone learning of sexual acts between an adult and a child under 14 to report them to police or child welfare authorities.”
A video released by LiveAction in October shows a staff member at a Bloomington Planned Parenthood clinic telling Rose, posing as a 13-year-old impregnated by a 31-year-old, how to avoid parental notification laws by traveling to an out-of-state clinic.
A new generation is using new media tactics along with lip service to progressive values in challenging Planned Parenthood.
A separate gambit plays on Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s sorry relationship with eugenics in the past century; anti-abortion activists such as Alveda King, niece of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., charge that Planned Parenthood embodies a eugenicist and racist goal targeting Black people for genocide. In 2006, Rose deployed an actor to call Planned Parenthood clinics posing as a racist donor offering to fund abortions sought by African-American women.2 Live Action secretly recorded the phone calls, then incorporated them into videos posted on YouTube. (YouTube removed several of those videos for “inappropriate content,” presumably to avoid any legal issues arising from the manner in which the material was obtained.)
While Rose is quick to note in public remarks that none of the affiliates contacted by Live Action “on that first day of calling” turned down the money, she cited only two instances in her speech last year to a right-wing gathering in Washington, D.C., where the caller made clear his racist motivation—that his earmarked donation was designed to help reduce the number of “Black kids” on “the streets.”3 She did not say how many affiliates were contacted “on that first day,” or the total number ultimately called. And she referred not to an actor making the calls, but an activist.
Ken Blackwell, Ohio’s former secretary of state and an African-American, was then running for governor. He called for a congressional investigation into the result of a call made to a Planned Parenthood office in Columbus, in which a receptionist replied “Okay,” when the caller said there were “definitely way too many Black people in Ohio.”4 After losing the gubernatorial race to Democrat Ted Strickland, Blackwell joined the Family Research Council staff. At press time, with the backing of the right-wing umbrella group the National Center for Policy Analysis, he was vying for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.
At September’s Values Voter Summit, an annual religious Right gathering convened by the FRC Action arm of the Family Research Council, Lila Rose appeared as an emerging star. Introduced to the audience as “a young Sarah Palin,” Rose touched on the Right’s anti-Planned Parenthood themes, both new and old, favorably quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the socialist organizer Saul Alinsky (whose socialist methods Palin accused Barack Obama of appropriating) along the way. The speech was tightly crafted, and Rose’s performance evoked the stilted timing and preciousness of a child actor.
She said she received an e-mail from Mary-Jane Wagle, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, threatening legal action against Rose’s group if the undercover footage of her sting at the L.A. clinic was not removed. Rose said, “I remember sitting wide-eyed at my computer, startled by the realization that Planned Parenthood, the billion-dollar corporation and number-one leader of abortions in America, was afraid.” She paused apparently expecting a response, and when no applause came, she let out a girlish laugh, as if amazed at her own power in the face of the mighty giant. On cue, the crowd roared its approval. According to Rose, the Alliance Defense Fund represented her and the L.A. Planned Parenthood ultimately did not file a lawsuit against her or Live Action.
Think of an anti-choice activist, and the image that comes to mind is likely one of an aggressive, older White person waiting outside an abortion clinic to buttonhole a client for “sidewalk counseling” to convince her that she’s about to commit murder if she has an abortion. Perhaps you recall the tactics of anti-choice groups in years past, when activists recorded the license plate numbers of cars entering clinic lots, sometimes posting those numbers publicly, or Operation Rescue enthusiasts carrying giant signs graphically depicting bloody fetuses.
But decades of harassing or demonizing the women who seek reproductive health care at women’s health clinics have done little to move public opinion. In 1983, the year Catholics United for Life began sidewalk counseling at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Walnut Creek, California,5 respondents to a national Gallup poll found only 16 percent wanted abortion outlawed in all circumstances.6 Not long after Lila Rose posted her first video sting shot at the Los Angeles Planned Parenthood facility, a 2008 Gallup poll found those numbers virtually unchanged, with only 15 percent wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.7
These days, right-wing strategists rely on new storylines for opposing abortion— narratives with victimization themes that tap into the success of liberals’ two largest movements for social change: the African-American civil rights movement, and the women’s movement. Both movements won great gains for their constituents by demonstrating in the court of public opinion the violence, degradation, and unfairness suffered by the people whose cause they advocated. Feminism expanded once very limited notions of rape to include rape by acquaintances and spouses.
So the Right has recast teenage girls and women who have abortions as victims of a greedy and faceless corporation (Planned Parenthood), or tools of a racist movement whose purpose is ethnic and racial cleansing. A corollary theme portrays Planned Parenthood, the faceless corporation (it’s actually a non-profit federation), as an incorrigible breaker of laws, accountable to no one—corporate accountability being another cause embraced most often by liberals and progressives. This is not to say old arguments aren’t still in play. The new National Coalition to Defeat Planned Parenthood picks up on longstanding right-wing arguments in painting the nonprofit as being a corrupt beneficiary of big government (see box, pg.10).
With the prodding of their new coalition and tactics, the Religious Right loses no opportunity to target Planned Parenthood. The American Family Association features on its Web site an online petition that answers the question, “Should President Barack Obama keep his promise to Planned Parenthood and strike down nearly every pro-life law in America?”8 (During the presidential campaign, Obama promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would open up certain state-level restrictions on abortion to court challenges.) Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, used his elegy for Paul Weyrich, a founding father of the Christian Right who died in December 2008, to rail against Planned Parenthood: “Wherever a Planned Parenthood worker is breaking parents’ hearts by leading their children into sin, we have a grievance against our government,” Perkins wrote in an e-mail to supporters, “Paul Weyrich was the first to show us how we could effectively petition our government for redress of our grievances.”9
When it wanted to go after the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s 12th Annual National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality, the Institute for Religion and Democracy, best known for fomenting strife over gay issues in mainline Protestant denominations, picked on RCRC for showcasing a staffer from Planned Parenthood Federation of America.10
Out on the fringe, Rod Parsley, one of the right-wing pastors whose endorsement presidential candidate John McCain eventually disavowed, compared Planned Parenthood to Nazis in an edition of his television show that featured Rev. Johnny Hunter, president of the Life Education And Resource Network, Inc.(LEARN).11 LEARN is an organization whose main mission appears to be the advancement of the notion of Planned Parenthood as a racist organization.
The Right’s new storylines seem designed to trip up liberals, to use their compassion against them, to depict them as frauds. These are narratives as rhetorical traps set by a handful of religious-right actors, seemingly in coordination so closely do they play their parts.
Alveda King capitalizes on her last name and illustrious uncle to promote the notion of abortion as a “black genocide.” “I have a dream; it’s in my DNA” she said at an anti-abortion protest staged outside the NAACP’s national convention in Cincinnati last September (posted on Live Action’s home page).12 Lila Rose, with her adolescent affect, represents the under-age girl whom the Right says Planned Parenthood exploits after she has been used by an adult man.
Phill Kline, the former attorney general of Kansas, fronts the notion of Planned Parenthood as a scofflaw. Kline made big news when, as Kansas attorney general, he subpoenaed the medical records of hundreds of Kansas women who obtained medical services in a Planned Parenthood clinic, as well as a private clinic directed by Dr. George Tiller, where Kline asserted that illegal late-term abortions were being performed. Kline’s case against Tiller was dismissed in 2006, a month after voters turned Kline out of office.13 He went on to become the district attorney of Johnson County, Kansas, where he pursued an investigation of the local Planned Parenthood clinic, but was turned out of that office in an August 2008 primary challenge. Copies of the medical records of the women and the girls who had abortions there, however, remain in the hands of his successor.
Anti-abortion groups recently came together in a master coalition aimed at stripping Planned Parenthood of its government funding.
At the Values Voter Summit, Kline was featured with King on what was billed as a “civil rights panel”; there he picked up Rose’s theme of the under-age girl exploited not once, but twice—by an older man and then by the abortion clinic to which he brings her. In Kline’s opening anecdote, the girl in question was the daughter of the man who impregnated her, a story designed to cast an abortion clinic as an accessory to incestuous rape. Mocking the language of “choice” used by reproductive-rights groups, Kline said, “The choice was always his; he chose her again and again.”
“To this day, Planned Parenthood has never been convicted of a crime,” Rose told an audience at the same conference. “They and their abortion mills continue to mock the very regulations that the pro-life community has strived to enact for over a dozen years. We need district attorneys and attorney generals (sic) to take the lead and prosecute. Planned Parenthood will provide the crimes; we must provide the convictions.” The regulations she speaks of include parental notification laws that some reproductive justice advocates argue can put girls at risk who seek abortions.
Rose also explained the Right’s anti-Planned Parenthood strategy to her listeners. “In the controversial activist handbook, Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky does give some good advice,” Rose said. “He writes, ‘Men don’t like to step abruptly out of the security of familiar experience. They need a bridge to cross from their experience to a new way.’ Let’s take this advice to heart. We can take positions that we all agree on—rape and racism are both fundamentally evil—and use them as bridges to inspire respect for human life. We need to broaden the context for people’s understanding of the abortion industry and culture.”
A similar strategy worked to great effect in the 1980s, when right-wing players seized upon the issue of pornography to divide the feminist movement. In 1984, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese convened a special commission to “study” America’s pornography problem, just as heated debates took place within feminist circles on how best to address the issue. Some sought protective or remedial measures for women who suffered harms related to pornography; others feared the impact such measures might have on free speech. Meese astutely featured Andrea Dworkin, the feminist anti-pornography crusader, on a panel with anti-feminist right-wing activists, placing them in league together. The impact was devastating; not until the Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination in 1991 did the women’s movement effectively regroup.
Today, right-wing leaders seek to pit members of the progressive coalition— such as those concerned about rape and exploitation of underage girls or those concerned about racism—against Planned Parenthood in an effort to deprive it of the government funding it receives for providing general health services and sex education—programs unrelated to abortion. According to the Wall Street Journal, one third of Planned Parenthood’s budget—some $335 million per year—comes in the form of government contracts for the provision of non-abortion health care services to low-income women and teenagers.14 General gynecological health care, disease screening and contraception (not including abortion) accounts for 86 percent of its entire budget (including government and non-government funding), according to Planned Parenthood, with many of those services provided to women of color. Indeed, of its total budget for services, only 3 percent goes to abortion services—and none of that funding comes from the government.
Access to contraception is known to be an important factor in the economic prospects of a woman; indeed, the most significant social effect of the invention of the Pill, argues British academic Angela Phillips, was not the sexual revolution, but the relative improvement in the economic status of women where the Pill and other reliable birth control methods are available. Before contraception was widely available to women, she writes, “[p]regnancy meant the end of economic independence. A pregnant woman became immediately dependent on the man who had impregnated her. If he refused to take on this responsibility she had to resort to dangerous backstreet abortion, or have her baby adopted. If he married her she was literally enslaved: totally dependent on his earnings to keep her and her child.”15 Planned Parenthood clinics make that birth control available to women with little means. For many low-income women, the health services they receive at Planned Parenthood are the only professional health care they enjoy.
With federal and state government budgets strapped for funds as the economy takes its toll, the Right sees an opportunity to remove a significant player in the advancement of women—especially women of color—toward equality. Turning her remarks directly to Planned Parenthood, Lila Rose, at the Values Voter Summit, threatened, “You will be brought to justice and, Planned Parenthood, you will be defunded.” In her December 2008 Wall Street Journal article, journalist Stephanie Simon described the Right’s campaign to deprive Planned Parenthood of government funding. “[T]he new lobbying effort, backed by conservative Christian groups such as the Family Research Council, focuses more on economic than moral concerns,” Simon reported. “The campaign paints Planned Parenthood as a wealthy organization that doesn’t need taxpayer help. Planned Parenthood reported record revenue and a $115 million budget surplus last year...” This year, however, more women than ever are expected to seek their health care through Planned Parenthood, as lost jobs mean lead more to live without health insurance.
After she had cited Alinsky’s writings and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Lila Rose closed her remarks to the Values Voter Summit with this quote from Mother Theresa: “The so-called right to an abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men.” In truth, the Christian Right’s war on Planned Parenthood seeks to pit members of the progressive coalition against each other, leaving countless low-income women to frantically tread water in a sinking economy.
Note: this article contains a correction. National Center for Policy Analysis replaces Center for National Policy.
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