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The New Yorker: The History, and Future, of Planned Parenthood

By Erica C. Barnett November 14, 2011

At a time when the entire field of Republican candidates for President opposes abortion rights; when the "personhood" movement has vowed to bestow constitutional rights on fertilized eggs in every state; when a congressional disagreement over whether to fund Planned Parenthood nearly shut down the federal government; when health-care reform only passed after women's reproductive rights were stripped from it; and when knowledge of how birth control actually works has slipped so far that a national political pundit can claim on national TV that the government shouldn't fund the pill because women will just get drunk before they have sex and forget to take it (!!!), Jill LePore's comprehensive history of the birth control and abortion-rights movement in the US is a breath of fresh air.

Unfortunately, the full story is behind the New Yorker's stubborn paywall, but if you aren't a subscriber, the piece is worth the $6 cost of admission alone. Here's the abstract.


[pullquote]If a fertilized egg has constitutional rights, women cannot have equal rights with men.[/pullquote]

Some highlights:

• Planned Parenthood, and its abortion services, have been a constantly moving target.
Michele Bachmann, in one speech, accused the organization of "committing crimes and enabling young girls and covering up issues I don't even want to talk about because it's so disgusting" and, in another, described clinics in swank suburban malls where wealthy women who are "picking up Starbucks" can be found "stopping off for an abortion." Was it shabby and underhanded or upmarket and unabashed? "We would wake up and, every day, [Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile] Richards said. "Some days it was about abortion. Some days it was about race. Some days it was about kids. Some days it was about me."

• Although conservative critics of Planned Parenthood have claimed that abortions make up most of what it does (Republican House Whip John Kyl, R-AZ, claimed on the house floor that abortion constitutes "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does"), in reality, abortions make up only about three percent of Planned Parenthood's services. The vast majority of what Planned Parenthood does consists of things like screening for STIs and UTIs screenings; prescribing birth-control and antibiotics; teaching women to check their breasts for lumps; providing annual Pap smears (which test for things like cervical cancer) and giving pregnancy tests.

• Susan B. Anthony is about as appropriate a hero for the abortion-rights opponents behind the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony list as Michele Bachmann would be for pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood.
[Birth control pioneer] Margaret Sanger [pictured] opened that first clinic in Brooklyn four years before the passage of what was called, at the time, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." ... [The ERA's] eventual defeat was accomplished by conservatives led by Phyllis Schlafly, who opposed the women's rights movement and supported a human-life amendment. Schlafly, not Anthony, is the grandmother of the pro-life movement.

• Birth control, and even abortion, was not originally a partisan issue. During the Depression and the second world war, the ability to limit the size of one's family was seen as a human right, supported by hundreds of Jewish and Protestant clergy. Barry Goldwater "was an active member of Planned Parenthood, and his wife served on the board in Phoenix." Martin Luther King, Jr. supported Sanger's efforts to make birth control available to women, praising Sanger for having "launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions." Presidents Eisenhower and Harry Truman served as co-chairs of a Planned Parenthood committee, and even George H.W. Bush, then a US representative, said in 1968, "We need to make family planning a household word."

• What has changed? In part, the debate itself has shifted: From what rights a woman should have over her body, to what constitutes a human being. But, as LePore notes,
If a fertilized egg has constitutional rights, women cannot have equal rights with men. This, however, is exactly what no one wants to talk about, because it's complicated, and it's proved surprisingly easy to use the issue to political advantage. Democrats and Republicans thrust and parry, parry and thrust, in a battle that gives every appearance of having been going on forever, of getting nowhere, and of being unlikely to end anytime soon. That, however, is an illusion. Neither abortion nor birth control is, by nature, a partisan issue, and, from the vantage of history, it's rather difficult to sort out which position is conservative and which liberal, not least because this  debate, which rages at a time when there is no consensus about what makes a person a person, began before an electorate of white men was able to agree that a woman's status as a citizen is any different from that of a child.
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