Planned Parenthood: The Battle Continues

[This is a draft of a short article written for Contexts on Planned Parenthood.]
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Planned Parenthood found itself caught in the middle of a political maelstrom this fall after the pro-life group, Center for Medical Progress, released a video that allegedly showed the organization selling fetal body parts for profit. Republicans called for the immediate defunding of the health organization and Republican presidential hopefuls chimed in, accusing Planned Parenthood of “profiting” off of the abortion procedure. Rick Perry argued that “The video showing a Planned Parenthood employee selling the body parts of aborted children is a disturbing reminder of the organization’s penchant for profiting off the tragedy of a destroyed human life.” On the same day Carly Fiorina opined, “This latest news is tragic and outrageous. This isn’t about ‘choice.’ It’s about profiting on the death of the unborn while telling women it’s about empowerment.” Several states have made moves to defund (or have already defunded) the organization and, in September, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held hearings regarding tax payer funding of Planned Parenthood. More recently, the Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner appointed eight Republicans to a committee charged with investigating the practices of the group.

The attack on Planned Parenthood’s funding is not new. Republicans periodically seek to cut off the organization’s revenue, despite the fact that federal dollars are not used to pay for abortions. These efforts are, in part, an effort to appease pro-life activists and voters, who use a candidate’s commitment to the cause as a litmus test for their votes. As access to abortion has tightened at the local and state level, Republicans find it increasingly difficult to prove their commitment to pro-life loyalists.

Republicans are dealing with the consequences of their success.

The last frontiers of the war are making abortion virtually illegal – an idea that the recent debate over personhood legislation revealed is not universally popular even among Republicans – and dismantling Planned Parenthood.

The attack on Planned Parenthood reveals three troubling trends in American politics. First, there is a startling disconnect between knowledge and action. While politicians from both parties speak first and research later, the comments made by Republicans illustrate a clear lack of knowledge about women’s health issues and Planned Parenthood, particularly in terms of the services it provides and the services government reimburses. At the same, Republicans are willing to suspend Planned Parenthood’s funding for a year so that they can “investigate” the organization.

Sure. Didactic rhetoric and grand gestures makes for great news coverage, which is the second problem. Increasingly, journalists seem unwilling to bring clarity to the abortion issue beyond the editorial pages. While several newspaper editors took forceful positions from the “editor’s desk” on the video and Republicans’ responses to it, their coverage is remarkably shallow. No doubt, journalists’ reservations are partially motivated by the fact that activists and individuals can harass them for how they cover controversial issues in the virtual world. However, given that news media are considered the fourth leg of government, the reluctance to covering issues – as opposed to controversies about an issue – is problematic at best.

Finally, political calculation completely trumps party values. Notice that Democrats did not exactly run to Planned Parenthood’s aid this summer, even though they have publicly supported the organization’s focus on women’s health in the past. Look at Hilary Clinton’s response. Clinton maintained media-silence on the video for more than three weeks. When she finally commented on the organization in an interview with a reporter from the New Hampshire Union Leader she noted that some of the images were “disturbing” and that the video pointed to problems in “the process” rather than with Planned Parenthood itself. As I discuss in another Contexts piece, this should be understood as the new normal for Democratic politics. In the contemporary political environment women’s rights are pitted directly against religious rights, and Democrats don’t want to get caught on the least popular side of the debate.

What does this all mean for Planned Parenthood?

In the short term, it is unlikely to be defunded; at least by the federal government. States, however, are a different matter. Texas, which already defunded the organization, subpoenaed Planned Parenthood clinics for information regarding patients and employees as part of an investigation of its fetal tissue transactions. In the long term, Planned Parenthood should prepare itself for a public relations battle that, eventually, will have political and financial consequences. Sure, Planned Parenthood as faced other public controversies. The difference here is that an organizational representative looked bad in the context of the work Planned Parenthood conducts and this has costs. A recent Gallup Poll shows that only 59% of respondents view the organization favorably – down 22% from 1993. If these attacks continue, Planned Parenthood could find it has very few allies on Capitol Hill.

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About Double take Sociology

I am a professor of sociology at Florida State University. I research (and write about) social movements, mass media and politics. My new book is "Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America" (2015, Cambridge University Press). Be sure to visit my website at www.DeanaRohlinger.com!
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