#FeministFriday No. 31

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the War on Women.

This Monday, the Senate will take a procedural vote to move forward with legislation to defund Planned Parenthood. The vote will determine whether or not to end debate on a motion to proceed to a bill that would cut off funding for the organization. Republicans are pushing for the bill in the wake of a string of controversial videos about fetal tissue donations.

It needs 60 votes to pass, which is unlikely to happen — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would have to get every Republican and at least six Democrats to back the idea — but that doesn’t mean this will be the end of the defunding battle.

First, some history. I see anti-choice activists around the Internet, as well as people in my comments section often going on about Planned Parenthood being an agency of the devil; how the murderers who work there do nothing but kill innocent children with no regard to the physical or emotional effects on the pregnant person, then turn a profit by illegally selling body parts to shady black market facilities. Nothing about Planned Parenthood is beneficial to our society, unless you think the murdering of innocent children is a good thing.

I must say, the world you assume you live in sounds like a scary place.

Planned Parenthood was founded in Brooklyn in 1916 by Margaret Sanger, Ethel Byrne, and Fania Mindell, and was the first birth control clinic in the United States. All three women were immediately arrested and jailed for violating provisions of the Comstock Act, and were accused of distributing “obscene materials” at the clinic. Their trials garnered national attention and support to their cause, and led to major changes in the laws governing birth control and sex education in the United States. In 1938, the clinic was organized into the American Birth Control League, but the title was considered offensive and “anti-family”, so in 1942 the League became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. By this time, the organization was operating 222 centers and had served over 49,000 clients.

Today, PPFA is a federation of 85 independent Planned Parenthood affiliates around the United States. Together, these affiliates operate more than 820 health centers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. They are the largest family planning services provider in the United States, staffed by 27,000 employees and volunteers. PPFA serves over five million clients a year, 26% of whom are teenagers under the age of 19. 75% of their clients have incomes at or below the federal poverty level.

Services provided at PPFA locations include contraceptives; long-acting reversible contraception; emergency contraception; screening for breast, cervical, and testicular cancers; pregnancy testing, and pregnancy options counseling; testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases; comprehensive sexuality education; menopause treatments; vasectomies and tubal ligations; and abortion.

In 2009, PPFA provided 11,383,900 services to their patients in the United States, which had the following break down:

  • 4,009,549 contraceptive services (35% of total services)
  • 3,955,926 sexually transmitted disease services (35%)
  • 1,830,811 cancer related services (16%)
  • 1,178,369 pregnancy/prenatal/midlife services (10%)
  • 332,278 abortion services (3%)
  • 76,977 other miscellaneous services (1%)

The organization also said its doctors and nurses annually conduct one million screenings for cervical cancer and 830,000 breast exams.

All that being said, some people reading this will only focus on the number that makes up 3% of all services provided by Planned Parenthood, so I think that it is particularly important to note that due to easily available contraceptives and comprehensive sex education provided by PPFA, abortion rates have actually dropped to an all-time low.


Despite what the anti-choice movement would have you believe, no one at Planned Parenthood responds to a regular unintended pregnancy with, “you should get an abortion.” Abortion is typically given as a viable option to unintended pregnancies, but it is not the only option provided, and there is never pressure placed on the pregnant person by Planned Parenthood to choose abortion. Their goal is actually to have as little need for abortions as possible by providing effective preventative measures and education — something that Republicans also want to block for reasons that are still unclear to me. Because there will never not be a need for them, the PPFA and the pro-choice movement also support keeping abortions legal to keep them safe (legal abortion is currently fourteen times safer than childbirth).

Planned Parenthood has received federal funding since 1970, when President Nixon signed the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act into law. The law had bipartisan support from liberals who saw contraception access as increasing families’ control over their lives, and conservatives who saw it as a way to keep people off welfare. Title X of that law provides funding for family planning services, including contraception and family planning information, which Nixon described as the premise that “no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition.”

In 2011, total consolidated revenue for PPFA was $201 million, 35% of which was received in government grants and contracts, and another 25% from their membership base of over 700,000 active donors. Approximately 65% of the revenue was put towards the provision of health services, while non-medical services such as sex education and public policy work make up another 16%; management expenses, fundraising, and international family planning programs account for most of the rest of their costs.

By law, no money received by federal funding can be allocated for abortions, and many private donors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are specifically marked to avoid funding abortions.

However, opponents of abortion have argued that allocating any money to Planned Parenthood for the provision of other medical services allows the organization to re-allocate other funds for abortion. Several coalitions of national and local “pro-life” groups have lobbied state and federal governments to stop funding PPFA. Legislation has been proposed to reduce funding, and six states have gone ahead with such proposals. In some cases, the federal executive branch has provided funding in lieu of the states. In other cases, courts have overturned such actions citing conflict with other state laws. In a few cases, complete or partial defunding of Planned Parenthood has gone through successfully, which has had disastrous consequences.

Most recently, the allegations that Planned Parenthood is illegally selling fetal tissue for profit has been the springboard for advocating defunding, and was the conception of Monday’s procedural vote.

Unfortunately for anti-choicers, those allegations are false. As the entire, unedited version of the now infamous video clearly shows, there isn’t any illegal activity happening. PPFA isn’t selling fetal tissue, they donate tissue to research organizations and charge $30 – $100 for storage and transportation — which is completely standard and reasonable within the medical community. The tissue is only donated with the written consent of the patient, and due to its ability to create stem cells, can be used to find cures and treatments for many different illnesses.

Furthermore, even if everything I just said wasn’t true, this is what most “babies” look like at the time of abortion:


Magnified view of a five week old embryo, originally published in Life magazine in 1965 by Lennart Nilsson

That five-week-old embryo is about 1/4″ long. It does not have viable organs, it doesn’t even have a face. To make claims that PPFA is illegally selling human organs on the Black Market shows a remarkable lack of knowledge on the part of the anti-choice movement. Fetuses that are older than 40 weeks have viable organs that could be harvested, but the only times abortions are given at that stage of gestation are in extreme circumstances — usually if the mother and/or fetus will not survive through the end of the pregnancy.

With all these facts and figures and statistics, it doesn’t make logical sense to defund Planned Parenthood, but it also doesn’t necessarily make logical sense to listen to me about any of this. I can spew facts and figures and statistics at you until my laptop battery runs low, but to what end? I’m a software consultant, not a healthcare worker. I’m a third party provider of information, and though I consider myself better educated about these issues than the average person on the street, I’m also arguably biased. While my biases of being a non-practicing Catholic, left-leaning female with an interest in remaining reproductively healthy may be considered advantageous to the issue at hand, wouldn’t it make more sense to listen to someone with actual experience being in the middle of all of this controversy?

Meet Lois.

Or as I know her, Grandma Lois.

Or as I know her, Grandma Lois.

Born and raised in Fonda, Iowa, Lois is a lifelong devout Catholic. As a wife and mother of two children, she was able to help support her family and pursue her passion of science by teaching high school earth and environmental science for 17 years, before enrolling in medical school at the University of Iowa. She graduated as a Physician Assistant in 1985, and in 1986 began working as a contraceptive clinician at several different Planned Parenthood clinics.

“I couldn’t get a job anyplace else,” she recalled, laughing. “In the Phoenix area I covered clinics in Gelbert, Mesa, and Tempe. Then when they moved me to Maui, I covered the clinics in Maui and they would fly me to Big Island, and I worked at clinics there… After I’d worked there for a while I thought it was really important to provide good care and information for…that segment of our society.”

As a contraceptive clinician, “I wasn’t ever trained to do abortions. I probably could have been, but I was really more interested in the education aspect for the girls who didn’t really have anybody else.” None of the clinics that Lois worked at provided abortions as a service, instead providing thousands of patients with access to “contraceptive information, counseling…clinical exams, and prescriptions for the contraceptives… I gave OB-GYN information, I did breast exams, medical exams for gynecological infections and tests for STDs, which I performed for males as well as females.”

Lois also noted the marked difference between the clientele and community support of the Arizona clinics and the Hawaii clinics.

“[The patients I saw] in Arizona, they were still in high school. Those were kids that lived at home, didn’t have a parent they thought would be understanding to what they wanted to know…they had health insurance, but they didn’t want Mom and Dad to know that they were already sexually active, so they would come to us for a prescription and not have to go through their family doctor. In Phoenix…they aren’t [supportive]. They’re more conservative, Midwest almost…we really kept a low profile. Hawaii was of a much different mentality, much more accepting of people’s rights to make choices… In Hawaii [the patients] were all kids that were on their own…mostly high school graduates, maybe had some college, but sort of runaways, drop outs…none of them had insurance… They came mostly for STD testing and exams. There was a pretty open attitude towards sex there, and with the background I grew up with, which was really, really pretty conservative, it was difficult. The whole relationship with the patient in that type of environment, they had to trust you. And they did…I was kind of strict with them, but evidently it worked because I would get a lot of referrals back from their friends.”

The areas Lois worked in did not have other reproductive health care options available for the patients she saw, and due to the strong Latter Day Saints influence in the Phoenix area, sex education was not widely available for teenagers.

“It seems ridiculous that everyone is so concentrated on abortion when if they would allow those kids to get decent contraceptive information in the first place, nobody would have to worry about abortions…Kids aren’t given information on contraceptives, they have no alternatives whatsoever, and even a lot of schools now aren’t allowed to give information…the girls and women I have worked with, many times…knew if they got pregnant they would be disowned, but they didn’t know how to keep from getting pregnant. Ergo, abortion… It’s such a ridiculous cycle.”

As to whether her own religious beliefs make it difficult to hold the views she does on reproductive rights, Lois simply shook her head.

“The Catholic Church has their heads buried in the sand. They refuse to look at the ramifications the things that they’re forcing to happen when they do this. I still consider myself Catholic, but there’s no way I can sit there and say that people should be forced to do something against their own best judgment. It’s simply not up to the Church, it’s not up to the Pope, it’s not up to a priest, and it’s not up to a bunch of people who try to limit the choices and try to force their opinions onto other people.”

She wasn’t shy about her thoughts on the proposed legislation to defund Planned Parenthood, either.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous, and it’s against the law. If they take away the provisions of healthcare and available contraceptive information and medication for that segment of our society, who’s going to take care of the babies that they don’t want? Sure they say they’ll help them, but are they going to be there at three o’clock in the morning when that mother is ready to tear her hair out because the baby won’t stop screaming? No, and I don’t think it’s up to other people, I don’t think it’s up to the law to decide how a person should live their life…they shouldn’t be required to carry a child because the law says they have to, they also shouldn’t be required to get rid of it… we provide good medication for everything else, we should provide good medication and good information for contraceptive care. We’re a rich country, we don’t have to force [anyone] to not have the information they need to make life choices.”

Planned Parenthood is a fundamentally vital organization when it comes to providing reproductive healthcare — particularly to low-income women. It’s time to stop pretending that trying to defund and shut down clinics that provide such important services is pro-life, and it’s time to realize that the legislation attempting to be passed by our lawmakers is an open declaration of war on women.

Leave any questions or comments below, and see you next week.

HUGE thanks to my Grandma Lois. Read the whole interview here.

Correction: an earlier version said Lois taught high school chemistry.


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