For 36 hours my Facebook feed has been overflowing with people angry at the Susan G. Komen Foundation for canceling grants to Planned Parenthood that paid for breast cancer screenings. According to the Associated Press, the grants totaled about $680,000 last year – which is not actually very much in the context of PPFA’s and the Planned Parenthood affiliates’ budgets, which totaled over $1 billion in FY 2010.
More significant than the amount of money is the spotlight this puts on Planned Parenthood’s careful positioning as a women’s health care organization – emphasis on the health care.
For nearly a century and a half, birth control has stood at the uncomfortable crossroads of medicine and services designed to empower women. Abortion was first outlawed in America in the 19th century as part of physicians’ (who were overwhelmingly male) efforts to make maternity care their responsibility rather than leaving it up to midwives (overwhelmingly female). But doctors didn’t quite know what to do about birth control, since it was preventive rather than curative - and they specialized in curing diseases and solving problems - so their solution was basically to not provide birth control. When Margaret Sanger founded her first clinic in 1916, she argued that women needed birth control in order to control their own lives, but she soon lost command of her own organization to male doctors who had more respectability and clout but played down the women’s empowerment side of their work. In 1942, they changed the organization’s name from the Birth Control League to Planned Parenthood so they wouldn’t scare people who were put off by the idea of women “controlling” their reproduction.
The abortion legalization movement was most powerful in the late 1960s when it was led by doctors, lawyers, and clergy, all of whom argued that injuries from illegal abortions constituted a public health crisis; abortion only became seriously controversial in the 1970s when it became linked to feminism and women's empowerment. Roe v. Wade said that the decision to have an abortion had to be left, not solely to the woman, but to the woman in consultation with her doctor. Since then Planned Parenthood has tried very hard to emphasize its medical aspects in order to tamp down criticism of its birth control and abortion services.
Throughout these decades, though, the political toxicity of the abortion and birth control issues have been driving away obvious partners in women’s reproductive health work. Organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund, which had a clear interest in promoting reproductive health, stayed away from Planned Parenthood because, as one CDF staffer said in 1981, “the politics are so hairy.”
This latest round with the Komen Foundation has many Planned Parenthood supporters arguing that PPFA should more proudly emphasize the feminist side of its work since its efforts to brand itself as a basic heath care provider don’t seem to be working anyway. A letter that Planned Parenthood has posted on its website from a supporter proclaims
Planned Parenthood isn't just a family of organizations. It's a movement. It's women and men of all ages who believe that health care — including reproductive health care — is a basic human right. We are millions strong. We are everywhere. We act, we give, and we do whatever it takes to make sure that Planned Parenthood is there for the women, men, and teens who rely on them.
Know this: When you go after Planned Parenthood and the people they serve, you go after ME. I stand with Planned Parenthood. I stand with them against anyone who wants to stop women from receiving the health care they need. I stand with them today, tomorrow, and for as long as I need to.
Planned Parenthood has endorsed this letter, which still emphasizes its medical services while also taking a very assertive stand in favor of women’s rights. Some want to go farther. Abigail Collazo atFem2.0 writes about “the women’s movement as a whole” that
We’re always trying so hard not to offend people, to convince the mainstream that we’re not crazy, psycho feminists who are out to get you….Instead of fighting on our issues and spreading awareness about perfectly legitimate threats to women’s rights, health, and well-being, we’ve gotten ourselves sucked into the argument about whether these threats really are threats. It’s like being a candidate for President and spending all your time and energy just trying to get on the ballot.
Instead, we’ve taken to messaging around “women’s issues” by demonstrating how little these things we fight for actually matter. We sell our strategy by saying “but this wouldn’t allow any federal money to specifically fund abortion!” and “but Planned Parenthood only spends 3% of its money on providing abortion services!”
This messaging is dangerous, and it falls right into the category of “we want you to know that we value your concerns about abortion and we are doing everything we can to try to not get in the way of your beliefs while still saving women’s lives.”
Going to bat for – screaming at the top of lungs in support of – organizations that save women’s lives and protect women’s rights is not something I will apologize for. It’s not something I will lower my voice for. It’s not something I will attempt to justify because you’re a misogynistic moron who would rather see me and anyone who looks like me die than give me the rights all other human beings seem to be born with.
And I will no longer try to reason with, or appear reasonable to, people who think women’s lives aren’t worth saving and women’s rights aren’t worth protecting.
So she’s posted on her Facebook page the following: “even if Planned Parenthood spent 100% of its money and resources on abortion, I would still support them. Who’s with me?”
Are we about to see a shift in the way Planned Parenthood and, especially, its supporters talk about the organization’s work?