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An Anti-Abortion Strategy: Leave Planned Parenthood Alone

Anti-abortion activists are harrying the wrong enemy, says Rich Barlow. The law, not Planned Parenthood, should be the focus. In this Dec. 17, 2013, photo, an unidentified medical clinician interviews a patient at a Planned Parenthood location in Boston. (Steven Senne/ AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Anti-abortion activists are harrying the wrong enemy, says Rich Barlow. The law, not Planned Parenthood, should be the focus. In this Dec. 17, 2013, photo, an unidentified medical clinician interviews a patient at a Planned Parenthood location in Boston. (Steven Senne/ AP)

It can’t be good when Ted Cruz breaks out the pom-poms. The Texas senatorial exhibitionist is cheerleading yet another possible government shutdown Oct. 1 to force a cutoff of federal money for Planned Parenthood. This follows the surrpetitious filming of a PP staffer callously discussing, over lunch, how an aborted fetus can be crushed without damaging organs needed for research. While the Senate is trying to neuter Cruz and avert a shutdown, Planned Parenthood has opened a major fault line there and in the House.

Some sharp minds on both sides of the abortion divide will disagree with this next paragraph (more on that momentarily): anti-abortionists are harrying the wrong enemy. Planned Parenthood provides vital services other than abortion. Instead, activists should try to change laws enabling unrestricted abortion, starting with those permitting late-term abortions for reasons beyond maternal health and life, rape, incest, or extreme fetal deformity. That procedure disturbs even many pro-choicers.

Planned Parenthood provides vital services other than abortion. Instead, activists should try to change laws enabling unrestricted abortion...

Planned Parenthood says abortions represent 4 percent of its services (they’re not subsidized by federal money, incidentally). It’s the remaining, subsidized, 97 percent that are vital: contraceptives, cancer and health exams, treatments for sexually transmitted infections, and sex education. You can treasure this work as publicly valuable even while acknowledging that evidence for the effectiveness of its family planning efforts are mixed.

Ah, but how can any pro-lifer swallow tax dollars for a group that performs any abortions at all? Well, my former spiritual leader, Pope Benedict XVI, deemed it morally permissible to vote for a pro-choice politician if you weren’t doing so because of her abortion stance, and if there were some other, compelling moral reason for your vote. It seems analogous to support with tax dollars a group whose abortion work you oppose, yet the bulk of whose services are praiseworthy.

One who will find the foregoing reasoning squishiness-squared is pro-choice writer Katha Pollitt, who didn’t even think it was necessary for Planned Parenthood to apologize for its minion’s crass talk about fetal tissue. Other liberals cringed at the staffer’s desensitized insouciance — journalist Eleanor Clift called it “disturbing” -- but Pollitt’s ideology brooks no qualms about abortion, a view she fleshed out in her book: Abortion is a basic human right, excuses and discomfort be damned.

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Opposition to abortion “is not just about ‘the unborn,’” she writes. “It is also a protest against women’s growing freedom and power, including their sexual freedom and power. That is why it is based in churches with explicitly limited roles and inferior status for women — not just the famously patriarchal Catholic Church but the Southern Baptists and other fundamentalist/evangelical Protestant denominations …”

She’s surely right about the anti-abortion camp’s low-hanging fruit: ultraright types and misogynists who variously oppose contraception, sex ed and a federal safety net for the disadvantaged. (Seventy percent of Americans who have abortions are “poor or low-income,” writes Pollitt, citing Guttmacher Institute data.) She cites the hypocrisy of some “pro-lifers” that former Congressman Barney Frank torpedoed more humorously: “They believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth.” Fixating on abortion while advocating cuts in necessary government aid to the needy is not pro-life.

Pollitt also proffers an explanation for the much larger “muddled middle,” the many Americans who don’t want to ban abortion but want it to be rare. They have slumbered during anti-abortion victories around the country, she writes, due to “conflicting, not-very-well-thought-out notions about women, sex, family, race, government, and a general sense that America is going down the drain.” But lazy thinking is an unpersuasive charge, considering that the ranks of those who disagree with her have included such keen intellects as Daniel Patrick Moynihan (the pro-choice senator nevertheless compared late-term abortion to infanticide) and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, who’s anti-abortion. Pollitt’s take on the muddled middle is more an article of faith, and like all faith, alternative explanations -- sometimes thoughtful people disagree, even on abortion -- won’t shake it.

Such legislative legwork, open to court challenges, can be lengthy and not always successful; welcome to democracy.

Across the abortion divide, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat admires the full-throated consistency of Pollitt’s view while disagreeing with it. He reserves his scorn for muddled middle pundits who are pro-Planned Parenthood but troubled by abortion, suggesting, “Why not write a column urging Planned Parenthood to, I dunno, get out of the dismemberment business?” (a reference to the dilation and evacuation method used to perform almost all second-trimester abortions). The reason is that, much as it saddens many of us, the law in many places allows Planned Parenthood to pursue that business, and the organization’s conscience clearly is untroubled.

Which is why Hentoff applauds state efforts to change their laws and ban dilation and evacuation. Such legislative legwork, open to court challenges, can be lengthy and not always successful; welcome to democracy. For my money, Douthat ignores Pope Benedict’s wise nuance and repeats Pollitt’s apparent shock, shock that some people out there actually have different opinions. The law, not Planned Parenthood, should be the focus.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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