The Anti-Abortion Case for Planned Parenthood

Successful attempts to defund abortion clinics would only result in more unwanted pregnancy -- and rid communities of critical testing centers


After an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood was blocked by the Senate and failed last week, Republican senator Cliff Stearns tried a new tack: His House Oversight and Investigations Committee demanded an audit of the non-profit organization's financial records dating back to 1998. The ostensible purpose of this investigation is to discover whether Planned Parenthood has misappropriated federal funds to pay for abortions, which is illegal under the Hyde Amendment.

While any organization receiving taxpayer funds should be accountable for how it spends that money, the timing of this request -- and the unreasonable two-week deadline for compliance -- suggests that it's motivated by something other than justified suspicion. Planned Parenthood spokespeople keep using the phrase "politically motivated" in various statements and interviews, which is entertaining inasmuch as it suggests that a targeted attack on an organization that provides abortions could be anything else. Many suspect -- one representative example calls him a "frustrated bully" -- that Stearns is hoping the audit will find a discrepancy that would justify punitive measures, and perhaps result in Planned Parenthood centers being shut down. This seems unlikely to happen, since the organization is always under financial scrutiny, and no previous audits have revealed improper use of federal funds. Stearns and his anti-abortion supporters are grasping for any excuse to harass and inconvenience Planned Parenthood and its affiliates, even when the probable payoff for their cause is nothing.

Every time a new attack of this nature makes the news, I can't help but wonder: Do these people have any idea what Planned Parenthood does? Yes, they provide abortions or referrals to medical practices that offer abortions, but that accounts for about three percent of their resources, and none of their federal funds; abortions are paid for by the patient, or by donations from people like me, who believe that a woman who doesn't even have the disposable income to terminate a pregnancy should absolutely not be forced to carry one to term. The other 97 percent of Planned Parenthood's budget goes toward a variety of services having to do with reproductive health. They provide birth control, STD testing, Pap smears, breast exams, cancer screenings (for men as well as women), and much more. So why have they become such a boogeyman to the anti-abortion right?

Wanting to criminalize abortion at least follows a certain kind of logic: "pro-life" activists believe that a fetus is as important as any other person, and that its life must be protected. I can oppose that position while still respecting the worldview that supports it. What I find inscrutable, however, are the host of other contentions that too often accompany an anti-abortion stance, such as opposition to comprehensive sex education and easily available birth control. This frequent package deal of troubling beliefs makes me suspect that, rather than "pro-life" or "anti-abortion," these American conservatives should most appropriately be described as "anti-sex."

When women can't or don't want to go through with a pregnancy, when they are not financially or emotionally capable of becoming parents, they will find a way out of the predicament. In the U.S. today, that usually means seeking a legal and safe abortion at Planned Parenthood or another medical practice. Throughout history, it has meant anything from pennyroyal tea to the proverbial back-alley coat-hanger abortion. Women have been more than willing to endanger their own lives when they had to in order to end an unwanted pregnancy. If the right gets what it wants and abortion is outlawed in the U.S., it won't mean the end of the procedure, just the end of safety and regulation in providing it.

If we accept that it's simply impossible for any legislature to prevent women from terminating unwanted pregnancies -- and several thousand years of human history would seem to indicate that it can't be done -- then the reasonable course is to make sure that anyone who doesn't want to be a mother does not wind up pregnant by accident. This is where conservatives like Stearns have argued that anyone unprepared for parenthood should simply abstain from sex, perhaps indefinitely. However, once again, there's history. People have sex for an enormous variety of reasons, of which the desire to procreate is only one.

A movement serious about reducing the number of abortions in this country would focus on preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place. They would work to get rid of abstinence-only sex education -- which studies have shown leads to higher rates of STDs and teen pregnancy -- and support more readily and cheaply available contraception. The anti-sex movement we have in this country, on the other hand, opposes sex ed, free birth control, and the HPV vaccine on the grounds that those things "encourage" people to have sex. They strive to make sure that anyone who has sex does so with as little information and as much risk as possible. And as a result of their efforts, more people have unprotected sex and end up with unwanted pregnancies and incurable diseases.

Image: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts.