The Assault on Planned Parenthood Is Getting Personal for Me

By
Women hold up signs during a women's pro-choice rally on Capitol Hill, July 11, 2013 in Washington, D.C. The rally was hosted by Planned Parenthood Federation of America to urge Congress against passing any legislation to limit access to safe and legal abortion. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Last week, they came for my Planned Parenthood clinic.

I’m not talking about the closest clinic to where I live now, in the relatively reproductive-rights-friendly state of California. I’m talking about the clinic where I went for birth control when I was young and uninsured in Columbia, Missouri. Technically they’ve been coming for it for years. The clinic stopped providing abortions in 2012, when the doctor who provided them moved away. There was a nearly three-year gap in care until July — right around the time surreptitiously recorded and deftly edited videos from within Planned Parenthood clinics began to emerge — when the clinic was cleared to begin providing them again thanks to a doctor from St. Louis who was willing to make the 124-mile drive.

Not for long, however. Missouri has enacted a restriction — a so-called TRAP law, as has been passed by right-leaning state legislatures in seven other states — that requires providers to have clinical privileges at a nearby hospital in order to perform abortions. The University of Missouri hospital had been the clinical partner for providers of Columbia*, and last week, under intense pressure from anti-abortion activists, the university revoked those privileges. “It is time to just get better and get rid of crummy doctors, get rid of doctors who are not going to take us into the future,” the chief medical officer of the university hospital system told the local newspaper.

Then yesterday, the Missouri Senate announced it will continue its investigation into Planned Parenthood affiliates in the state after anti-abortion activists charged that the clinics were profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. This, despite the fact that the state attorney general had conducted a similar investigation and found no evidence of such wrongdoing — as it turns out, fetal-tissue donations were made with the consent of the women having the abortions and given to medical researchers at no profit to Planned Parenthood. It’s all part of a strategy that goes far beyond Missouri.

***

I knew Planned Parenthood was synonymous with abortion before I really understood what abortion was. I grew up in a largely Catholic town, and many lawns in our neighborhood were dotted with red, octagonal “STOP Planned Parenthood” signs. I didn’t think much of it when I was a kid. But, thanks in part to this anti-marketing, when I got older I knew Planned Parenthood was a place I could go for sexual-health services when I needed them.

And, like many women, I ended up needing them, often. When I was broke, but was scared to put my birth-control pills through my conservative parents’ insurance plan. When I was broke (a different time) and had the worst insurance ever, but needed a checkup. When my friend needed an abortion, but lived in a state with a waiting period, and I drove her across state lines to a Planned Parenthood. Those octagonal yard signs might as well have been advertisements: “Stop! Planned Parenthood! Free exams and affordable contraception!”

Lawn signs are the least of Planned Parenthood’s worries these days. After an extreme anti-choice group released edited, surreptitiously filmed footage of Planned Parenthood staff arranging to donate fetal tissue to medical researchers, the organization has been subject to wave after wave of investigations at the state and national level — none of which have revealed any illegal activity. That hasn’t stopped the House of Representatives from voting to strip away its federal funding, which Planned Parenthood uses to provide low-income people with STD screenings and contraception services, but not abortions.

Today, Planned Parenthood is holding a national Pink Out, offering free STD testing in several cities and raising awareness about its services beyond abortion. There will be pro-choice vigils and marches. Online, expect a tide of supportive tweets and pink avatars. PPFA president Cecile Richards will testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the fact that — again, with the permission of the person having the abortion — some Planned Parenthood clinics donate fetal tissue. Unfortunately, we won’t hear from the scientists who use that tissue to develop treatments for everything from muscular dystrophy to eye disease to diabetes, either because they haven’t been asked or because they’re too scared of anti-abortion protesters to speak about their research.

Planned Parenthood is, paradoxically, both an easy target and an effective organization because it is a brand name. Every year, 2.7 million people visit Planned Parenthood’s 700 clinics. One in five women has sought health care there. Women know that, no matter where they are in the country and no matter how much money they have, if they can get themselves to a Planned Parenthood clinic, they can get the morning-after pill, a mammogram, a pelvic exam, an abortion, or a referral. Men know they can go there for an STD test or a cancer screening. They provide reproductive and health-care services to the trans community. Everyone knows these services will be safe and, just as importantly, judgment-free.

But it’s useful, especially with all the action on Planned Parenthood’s behalf today, to remember that we shouldn’t need a reproductive-care health-care brand. Contraception and STD testing and abortion should be things that you get from your regular doctor — and you should have a regular doctor even if you’re poor. Planned Parenthood exists because the services it provides are stigmatized and pushed out of the routine health-care framework, or are unaffordable within it. And its brand recognition is so important, in part, because the opponents of reproductive choice have gone out of their way to confuse women by establishing faux clinics that provide no health services at all, and to spread misinformation about the safety of contraception and abortion.  

The campaign to take down Planned Parenthood is a primary front in the war on abortion access. It is not simply about pandering to the religious-conservative base anymore. It is not the work of just a few fringe extremists. And it is not only affecting low-income women. Just ask John Boehner, who was forced from his job as speaker of the House because his fellow Republicans would not vote for a budget that continued Planned Parenthood’s funding. Just ask the people of Louisiana, which has the highest rates of syphilis and gonorrhea in the country, where lawmakers recently moved to cut off Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood. In lieu of this trusted provider of women’s health care, the state has suggested that women can visit audiologists, ophthalmologists, radiologists, and nursing homes if they are in need of breast exams, pap smears, or birth-control prescriptions. Planned Parenthood has said it will continue to fight state and national moves to defund it.

But overall, it’s losing. Women are losing. “From the beginning of 2011 through August 2015, states enacted 287 new legal restrictions on access to abortion care,” according to the Guttmacher Policy Review. “For women in large swaths of the United States, access to abortion services is more limited now than at any time since Roe v. Wade.” Abortion-providing clinics are closing at a rate of 1.5 per week. In Texas alone, in the two years since Wendy Davis made her stand for reproductive rights on the floor of the legislature, more than half of the state’s 44 clinics have shut down. The ’90s were known for abortion-clinic violence, but last year more than half of providers surveyed reported threats and intimidation. A Planned Parenthood clinic in Washington State was set on fire just this month. The group that filmed those undercover videos has ties to violent anti-abortion extremists. And the Republican Party leaders are more anti-choice than ever. “Every single GOP presidential nominee since Roe v. Wade has at least supported some exceptions for abortion,” said EMILY’s List president, Stephanie Schriock, at a luncheon this week. “These guys running right now are so extreme, they’re against exceptions, period.”

And this has happened at the exact time that the need for affordable reproductive health care has increased. Between 2010 and 2013 alone, the ranks of women in need of publicly funded family-planning services swelled by almost a million. In 103 counties, Planned Parenthood is the only provider of low-cost family-planning services. And Planned Parenthood centers are the go-to provider for women even in counties where alternatives exist. While Planned Parenthood affiliates are only 10 percent of publicly funded family-planning clinics, they serve 36 percent of patients who seek publicly funded services. Abortion will always be an option for relatively wealthy women, who can hop planes and cross borders to places where the procedure is safe, legal, accessible, and destigmatized. The rest of us can’t be so certain. Quality reproductive health care is rapidly becoming a luxury, not a right.

This is particularly infuriating because, despite conservatives’ best efforts to marginalize them, Planned Parenthood’s patients couldn’t be more mainstream. A majority of Americans are women. A majority of those women — 86 percent — have had sex in the past year. A majority of those sexually active women are able to get pregnant, but don’t want to have a baby right now. (Perhaps — and this is just a wild guess — this is partly because a majority of Americans have no paid maternity or paternity leave.) A majority of Americans have also had an STD or STI at some point in their life.

A majority of Americans — 55 percent, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll — support government funding for Planned Parenthood. Contrary to the hopes of the anti-abortion movement, graphic undercover videos have not turned people away from Planned Parenthood en masse. “The process of acquiring organs from the unborn involves practices and habits that would shock the squeamishly pro-choice if they ever had to confront the reality,” writes Times columnist Ross Douthat. Like most people, I don’t love seeing billboards and tweets featuring gory photos of fetuses (really looking forward to my Twitter timeline after I publish this article!), but I am not shocked or unaware that abortion is visceral and intense. Do photos of it make me squeamish? Of course. But there are a lot of things that make me squeamish whose legality I am comfortable with — childbirth, veal, and professional football, to name just a few. Ultimately, when it comes to a legal right, I trust women to choose what’s best for themselves.

These days I live in California, where fetus billboards and STOP Planned Parenthood signs are few and far between. But I do drive past Planned Parenthood clinics sometimes. I know these buildings are full of dedicated professionals who sacrifice higher salaries and personal safety to care for people who truly need them. I know that, by definition and brand reputation, these clinics are welcoming places where even poor people can get expensive care, and even religious conservatives can get the procedures they protest against.

But it’s clear that many of these clinics are built with the knowledge that they are targets. They are designed for defense: thick concrete and high walls and bulletproof mirrored glass. If you ever doubt that there’s a war on reproductive freedom going on, just slow down as you pass a Planned Parenthood and take a good, long look. These clinics are battlegrounds. We are battlegrounds. And when your body is the battleground, there is no winning. The best you can hope for is not to lose.

*This post original read "the St. Louis–based doctors" and has been reworded to provide clarity.