The pro-choice movement in the United States is on the back foot. Abortion clinics are closing as states legislate protections for unborn children and their mothers that are bad for business.
Some 25 abortion restrictions have been enacted in more than a dozen states in the last year, and six states have only one remaining clinic. At least 16 cases that would limit access to legal abortion remain in lower courts.
The Trump administration last year changed federal funding rules for “family planning” services (requiring separation of abortion and other health services to prevent public funding of abortion) though the move is subject to a court challenge and it is not clear what difference this has made in practice.
President Trump has been busy appointing conservative judges – 200 at last count.
Planned Parenthood, the biggest business in town, has had to eat humble pie and disown its patron saint, Margaret Sanger, a eugenicist who thought that black lives, among others, were multiplying too fast.
PPFA also has leadership issues, and staff in some clinics are fed up with bullying bosses and low wages. Indeed, one abortion activist blames Planned Parenthood for the fact that “the pro-life movement has us on our heels.”
The left-liberal British daily, The Guardian, recently ran a piece by a US columnist under the heading, “The pro-choice movement is in tatters. Planned Parenthood is part of the problem”. In it, feminist Jessa Crispin complains bitterly about the ineffectiveness of the organisation that is practically synonymous with the abortion industry in the US, and its political leadership.
Crispin herself worked for Planned Parenthood in Texas for five years. According to her, PPFA has become so invested in its political role that it is letting the industry itself go to pot, betraying the ranks of ordinary workers and the women whose access to abortion is reduced. It cannot simply blame Trump, she says, since the trend of conservative state governments passing restrictive abortion laws has been happening for decades.
Planned Parenthood bosses could argue that it precisely this legislative activism, driven by the pro-life movement, that has concentrated its attention and fundraising drives on the courts and elections, found it “hobnobbing with the powerful” more than ever, and made “protecting Roe” and “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” its best-known slogans.
“But shouldn’t Planned Parenthood be standing with us?” demands Crispin. “After all, we fund them with our donations. We keep abortion access available with our votes and our screaming voices in state legislatures. We’re the ones who work in clinics for salaries barely above the minimum wage [while ‘paying regional CEOs salaries in the mid-six figures’]. We’re the ones who escort women through screaming protestors…”
While it’s comforting for pro-lifers to see their opponents in disarray (and we can brush off the “screaming protestors” slur) there are lessons in it for the movement, especially when the forthcoming elections could remove a “pro-life President” from the White House and change state political leadership for the worse.
One of the lessons, as conservative observer John Horvath points out, is that relying on “a single, monolithic organisation with a huge budget has its disadvantages. Indeed, Planned Parenthood suffers from its top-down bureaucratic structure that easily gets bogged down and unwieldy.”
It’s worth noting also, that although Planned Parenthood is the single largest abortion provider, with 37 percent of all abortion clients, 58 percent of such women access services at independent clinics. It is the independent clinics that have been closing fastest – 30 percent of them in the last six years, according to the Abortion Care Network. As Crispin says, “Planned Parenthood’s brand recognition often draws support and dollars away from non-affiliated local clinics operating in rural regions without institutional support.”
The pro-life movement doesn’t seem to have this problem.
Although America has its National Right to Life Committee, Britain its Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and other countries their legacy pro-life organisations, groups have multiplied over the years to meet the variety of needs. They range from crisis pregnancy centres, to last-ditch “rescue” efforts, prayer vigils and sting operations, to national demonstrations and political advocacy. As Horvath notes, these keep the movement “nimble and adaptive”.
A second lesson is that political patronage is an unstable thing. One term of Trump can undo two terms of Obama. In many countries conservative parties cannot be relied on to oppose or even hold the line on abortion. On the other hand, while progressive politicians may be as zealous as ever about abortion rights, liberal voters seem to be less so.
A survey by the Pew Research Center carried out a year ago and released last month showed that a majority of Democrats (59 percent) support some legal limits on abortion, and 29 percent said they either agreed with Republicans on abortion policy or did not agree with either party’s position. This view was more prevalent, by the way, among less educated Americans – Planned Parenthood’s huddled masses – and younger Democrats. Gallup polls have consistently shown a majority in favour of restrictions.
Ultimately, though, a movement stands or falls on its principles, and the right to kill an unborn child is a much harder sell than a child’s right to live. No matter how it is dressed up – as women’s right to choose, or reproductive health, or the plight of “involuntarily pregnant people” (to quote Crispin) – abortion is tragic.
No matter when it is done, whether in the second trimester to end the life of a wanted but “defective” child, or in the first six weeks by chemical means – perhaps at home via webcam link to a remote clinic – it is a moral issue, representing a personal and social failure.
Perhaps the decreasing popularity of abortion is why Leana Wen, the first medical doctor to serve as president of Planned Parenthood in 50 years, tried to get the organisation to live up to its claim that its core business is women’s (and children’s) health, not abortion. Appointed in November 2018, Wen lasted only eight months in the job.
She subsequently wrote in the New York Times that the team she “brought in, experts in public health and health policy, faced daily internal opposition from those who saw my goals as mission creep. There was even more criticism as we worked to change the perception that Planned Parenthood was just a progressive political entity and show that it was first and foremost a mainstream health care organization.” Her efforts to bring in the perspective of “people who wrestle with abortion’s moral complexities” was the last straw for her employers.
Some of us don’t think that the morality of taking an innocent human life is complex at all. But complex or otherwise, abortion will always be a moral issue for the majority, touching as it does the deepest instincts of humanity. Fundamentally, that is why the pro-choice movement is in tatters, and that is why, even if it gets a new suit of clothes from Joe Biden, Planned Parenthood will never be a mainstream health organisation.