The Attack on Planned Parenthood, Why Now?

This week antiabortion advocates gathered in Washington D.C. to urge Congress to defund Planned Parenthood. The controversy ignited this summer when the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress released a video that allegedly provides evidence that the organization sells fetal body parts for profit.  Pundits are already predicting that government funding for Planned Parenthood will be at the center of a political maelstrom this fall, and conservatives are voicing their willingness to shut down the government over the issue.

Yes, legal abortion is tied up with partisan politics. But, the question that begs an answer is, why are we seeing these attacks on Planned Parenthood now?

Here’s an answer in a nutshell: Decades of work by the antiabortion movement came to fruition just as the war over whose-rights-matter-more collided with the election cycle.

Read my book, which includes an analysis of Planned Parenthood.

Read my book, which includes an analysis of Planned Parenthood.

Anti-abortion activists have been working to defund Planned Parenthood for decades. American Life League’s STOPP (which stands for Stop Planned Parenthood) was founded in the 1980s and has dedicated itself to delegitimizing the organization and undercutting the group’s public and funding support. Even antiabortion groups that do not particularly care for American Life League’s approach to politics agree that Planned Parenthood is enemy #1, the behemoth standing between them and victory. While there are plenty of hardliners, most antiabortion activists agree that closing Planned Parenthood’s doors would make abortion legal, but almost completely inaccessible. An enormous win for the movement.

Planned Parenthood truly is the thorn in the side of the antiabortion movement. If you don’t follow abortion politics, than you might have missed the antiabortion movement’s election strategy, which focuses on getting opponents of legal abortion elected to offices in every level of government. The results are zoning laws that make it difficult for clinics to set up in cities and Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws that make it very expensive for clinics to operate. Planned Parenthood is among the few that has weathered these attacks decade after decade.

The timing of the “gotcha video,” which allegedly shows a Planned Parenthood big wig selling fetal body parts for profit, was perfectly timed. The Center for Medical Progress hit the media sweet spot, creating a controversy when the news media didn’t have a lot of other political news to cover. Antiabortion groups kept the controversy alive with additional videos, protests around the country, and with a little help from their friends. Republican presidential hopefuls fanned the flame of controversy largely by displaying extreme naiveté about women’s issues and the range (and frequency) of Planned Parenthood’s services. Elected politicians picked up where the hopefuls left off, holding a Congressional hearing last week and scheduling another one for this week. The result is a cascade of media attention, most of it shaking a finger at Planned Parenthood.

The relative silence by Democrats has helped fuel the attacks on Planned Parenthood as well. Over the last year, lots of Democrats have gone silent on the issue of women’s rights. This is, at least in part, a function of a political climate where the rights of women are directly pitted against religious freedom. This is clear in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision. After spending decades trying to prove that Democrats support and, even, embrace religious traditions, this is not a fight progressive politicians with (re)election aspirations are looking to have. From their perspective, staying out of the political fray as long as possible is the best course of action.

Of course, with conservatives already threatening to shut down the federal government over the issue their time on the sidelines is almost at an end.

About Double take Sociology

I am a Professor of Sociology, a Research Associate in the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy, and an Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Community Engagement in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. I research (and write about) social movements, mass media and politics. To find links to my research, visit
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