18 Jan

A Shell Game: Planned Parenthood, Abortion, and the Political Right

Posted By Politybooks

Planned Parenthood has been in the U.S. news a lot lately. It is one of the largest providers of high quality, affordable health care and the largest provider of sex education in the U.S. Their services include STI/STD testing and treatment, contraception, cancer screening and prevention, pregnancy tests and prenatal services, and abortion. Abortions account for about three percent of their services (Fact Check 2015). In a Huffington Post article about Planned Parenthood (Pearson, 2015), one woman says: “The only reason I was able to have regular OB-GYN visits for years was because Planned Parenthood made it affordable.” Another adds: “They found abnormal cells on my cervix, removed them early enough and saved me from cervical cancer.” And another notes: “Planned Parenthood helped me decide not to have an abortion, and has helped me avoid having to face that choice for the past 16 years.” 

            Although Planned Parenthood offers a breadth of services, when Planned Parenthood makes the news, it is typically because of abortion services. In the more than 40 years that abortion has been legal, the abortion rate is at an all-time low (Pazol, Creanga, Burley and Jamieson 2014). The profile of women who get abortions has also changed. In the first decade after legalization, white women in their late teens and their twenties accounted for the majority of abortions: the majority had no children and were unmarried (Guttmacher Institute 2008; Marcotte 2013). Today single mothers of color who are in their twenties represent the profile of women seeking abortions (Marcotte 2013; Pazol et al 2014). The majority of those seeking abortions are economically disadvantaged and, if not living below the poverty level, then close to it (Marcotte 2013).  

            So why is Planned Parenthood and abortion so much in the news when abortion rates are declining, the majority of Planned Parenthood Services are for health and educational services other than abortion, and women who seek abortions are motivated to care for the children they already have? We argue that the attacks on Planned Parenthood are actually part of a larger shell game where the political right publicly targets abortion when the real targets are programs that increase women’s choices and independence, especially that of low-income women of color.

            At the center of the current shell game are falsified and discredited videos. In 2015, the Center for Medical Progress, a rightwing anti-choice direct-action group with connections to Operation Rescue, released a video presumably showing a Planned Parenthood employee talking about the organization making money by selling fetal organs. The Center obtained the video through a “sting” with two people pretending to represent a company using fetal tissue for research and released it at a time when the U.S. House of Representatives was considering a bill to defund Planned Parenthood. The House voted to defund Planned Parenthood. Subsequently, independent investigations revealed that the Center obtained the video under false pretenses and substantially edited it, misrepresenting the statements of Deborah Nucatola, the senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood (Calmes 2015; Levitan 2015). The Senate did not approve the bill at the time – but recently voted to repeal ObamaCare which included an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood (Carney 2015). 

            Arguments for defunding Planned Parenthood because of abortion deflect attention from the real goal to undermine support for reproductive health services that expand women’s choices and options. Wisconsin Republican Representative Glenn Grothman argued against Planned Parenthood saying that he had plenty of health care options and, therefore, did not need Planned Parenthood (Gettys 2015). Instead of maintaining the façade of defunding Planned Parenthood because of abortion, he slipped and exposed his disregard for the economic realities of many U.S. citizens and for the sexual and reproductive services that women need. 

            Since the release of the videos and Congressional debate about Planned Parenthood, threats and attacks against Planned Parenthood have dramatically increased. In November 2015, Robert Lewis Dear killed three people and injured nine others at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado. Earlier in the fall, Planned Parenthood sites in California, Illinois, Louisiana, and Washington experienced arson attacks. 

            While we obviously have strong opinions about Planned Parenthood and expanding, not limiting, women’s options for health care in general and for sexual and reproductive health care in particular, we encourage you to try to understand these verbal, monetary, and physical attacks on Planned Parenthood using a feminist sociological imagination and to not just accept our conclusions. Refer to any chapter in Investigating Gender and apply questions raised by this particular controversy. For instance, inspired by Chapter 2 Bodies, you can ask what are current ideas, policies, and practices regarding women’s bodies and how do they affect women’s access to health care? How does the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood reveal the intersections of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, and disability? How do ideas, policies, and practices about women’s bodies in the U.S. connect to those across the globe? What ideas, policies, and practices promote social justice? Or look at this controversy from the standpoint of families (chapter 3), education (chapter 4), work (chapter 5), health and illness (chapter 6), media (chapter 7), politics (chapter 8), or violence (chapter 9). The idea is to bring a feminist curiosity to understanding the services provided by Planned Parenthood and the significance of the attacks on the organization, asking how gender matters, how gender intersects with other systems of inequality, how what is happening in the U.S. is connected to what is happening elsewhere, and in what ways we can work toward social justice for all.



Calmes, Jackie. 2015. “Planned Parenthood Videos Were Altered, Analysis Finds.” The New York Times, August 27 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/28/us/abortion-planned-parenthood-videos.html

Carney, Jordain. 2015. “Senate votes to defund Planned Parenthood.” The Hill. Retrieved December 6, 2015 http://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/senate/261988-gop-blocks-dems-on-planned-parenthood-push

Fact Check. 2015. “PlannedParenthood’s Services. ”http://www.factcheck.org/2015/09/planned-parenthoods-services/

Gettys, Travis. 2015. “ GOP lawmaker doesn’t get why Planned Parenthood exists.”  US News, September 30. Retrieved October 3 http://www.rawstory.com/2015/09/gop-lawmaker-doesnt-get-why-planned-parenthood-exists-as-a-guy-i-can-just-go-someplace-else-for-care/

Jones, Rachel K., Lawrence B. Finer, and Susheela Singh. 2010. “Characteristics of U.S. Abortion Patients, 2008. Guttmacher Institute.Retrieved January 15, 2016 https://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/US-Abortion-Patients.pdf

Levitan, Dave. 2015.“Unspinning the Planned Parenthood Video.” Factcheck.org: A Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, July 21. http://www.factcheck.org/2015/07/unspinning-the-planned-parenthood-video/

Marcotte, Amanda. 2015. The demographics of abortion: It’s not what you think.” The American Prospect, January 22, 2013. Retrieved December 3 http://prospect.org/article/demographics-abortion-its-not-what-you-think

Pazol, Karen, Andreea A. Creanga, Kim D. Burley, and Denise J. Jamieson. 2014. “Abortion surveillance-United States 2011.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved December 3 http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6311a1.htm?s_cid=ss6311a1_e

Pearson, Catherine. 2015. “17 Women Share HowPlanned Parenthood Transformed Their Lives.” HuffPost,  September 18.Retrieved October 3 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/planned-parenthood-transforms-womens-lives_55fc49e7e4b00310edf6da3e