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Planned Parenthood And The Politically Expedient War Against Women

Opponents and supporters of Planned Parenthood demonstrate Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Opponents and supporters of Planned Parenthood demonstrate Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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Is the latest Republican effort to defund Planned Parenthood a categorical war against women? Not really. It’s a war against some women, mainly low and moderate-income women who rely on Planned Parenthood for health care –- cancer screenings, STD treatments, and access to contraception, as well as abortion.

Is it a war on abortion or the alleged sale of fetal tissue? Not exactly. This is more like a war on contraception and (however inadvertently) a campaign to increase the number of abortions by denying women access to birth control, as critics of the defunding drive have noted. Republicans with rudimentary understandings of biology (and I suspect there are more than a few) probably understand the relationship between a decrease in contraceptive use and an increase in abortion. They should also understand that their success in limiting the availability of safe, legal abortions means that a decrease in contraception can lead to an increase in dangerous, illegal abortions.

You can find at least a partial history of the Republican’s party’s embrace of the religious right in the history of its position on choice.

No matter, I guess, if you’re less concerned with protecting women’s health or limiting abortions than with gratifying your political base. Abortions constitute only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood services, the Washington Post explains, while 75 percent of its funds support contraceptive care and STI/STD testing and treatments. (The New York Times reports that abortions constitute less than 10 percent of its services nationwide.) Planned Parenthood is generally barred from using federal grants to fund abortions (although federal funding for other services frees up private money for abortions). But these are inconvenient, ignorable facts to defunding advocates intent on exploiting the perception that Planned Parenthood primarily exists to provide and profit from abortions.

If you consider abortion the slaughter of innocents, reflecting an utter disregard for human life, it may not be hard to believe that abortion providers profit from this “slaughter” by trafficking in fetal tissue. It may be easy to disbelieve Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards when she says that only “a handful” of clinics in three states have programs allowing women to donate (not profit from) fetal tissue for research.

What do Republican senators leading the latest charge against Planned Parenthood believe? Ted Cruz calls Planned Parenthood a “criminal enterprise.” But if he is nearly as smart as he is reputed to be, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he rarely believes his own inflammatory rhetoric. Instead, I assume that Cruz and other showily enraged, aspiring defunders, believe that a drive to defund Planned Parenthood, even if it threatens a government shut-down, will help them gain the presidency and retain the Senate in 2016.

Will this strategy work? Will an outcry against abortion and alleged sales of fetal tissue rally Republican voters and serve the electoral purposes once (but no longer) served by opposition to same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act? Who knows? That is the only obvious and accurate answer.

Democrats and pro-choice advocates can hope that the crusade against Planned Parenthood peaks too early; the election is over a year away. But they no doubt remember that opposition to the ACA emerged as a potent political force in the summer of 2009, over a year before the unusually consequential 2010 election. It left Republicans controlling a majority of state legislative chambers, giving them the power to control congressional re-districting and likely control of the House of Representatives until 2022, at least. It also solidified the influence of hard-right primary voters on the Republican establishment.

They should also understand that their success in limiting the availability of safe, legal abortions means that a decrease in contraception can lead to an increase in dangerous, illegal abortions.

Planned Parenthood is an easy target for opponents of reproductive choice. It’s also a historic target: In 1916, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was imprisoned for disseminating information about contraception. But the organization gradually gained respectability, and by the mid to late 20th century, when choice was known as family planning, Planned Parenthood enjoyed the support of mainstream Republicans, like former President George H.W. Bush.

Now, Susan Collins, Maine’s putatively moderate, pro-choice senator, has voted to advance the bill defunding Planned Parenthood, weakly explaining that she hopes eventually to amend it. Only one Republican, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, voted against the bill. You can find at least a partial history of the Republican Party’s embrace of the religious right in the history of its position on choice.

So far, that embrace has been a politically profitable one. This time, a Democratic filibuster against considering the defunding bill succeeded. (Only two Democrats, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, voted with Republicans.) But the demonizing defunding drive will continue. Whether or not Republican leaders expect it to succeed legislatively, they have reason to believe it will pay off politically. Only the voters can eventually prove them wrong.

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Wendy Kaminer Cognoscenti contributor
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic, writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture and is currently a correspondent at The Atlantic. Her latest book is "Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU."

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