The Bizarre Celebration of 'Unplanned Parenthood'

Why a pro-life Twitter hashtag—like the larger campaign to defund Planned Parenthood—is terrible for public health

A woman attends a "Women Betrayed Rally to Defund Planned Parenthood" on Capitol Hill on July 28. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Following the release a series of pro-life sting videos targeting Planned Parenthood, Republican senators are threatening to defund the family-planning provider. A vote on their bill to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding—which accounts for 40 percent of the organization’s budget—could come as early as Monday.

On Twitter, pro-life advocates are trying to help it along, popularizing the hashtag #UnplannedParenthood on Wednesday. Many of the tweets come from people who purport to have been, or have had, accidental children.

In some ways, reading through the missives is sort of an upper—a testament to how difficult and unexpected things often work out well in the end.

But probe even slightly further, and the movement becomes disastrously illogical.

First, there is a big difference between an unplanned pregnancy and an unwanted one—and an even bigger gulf between a baby you actively choose to have and one you’re forced to carry because abortion is illegal.

Twitter hashtags aren’t exactly doctoral dissertations. Still, it’s odd how this one seems to celebrate unplanned pregnancy. Let’s recall that women have been desperate for effective birth control for centuries. During the Great Depression, women who wanted to avoid having babies they couldn’t afford used “disinfectant douches” that burned their genitals and didn’t do much to stop conception. The invention of the pill is partly credited with helping women expand their earning potential and achieve greater gender equality.

Today, reducing unexpected pregnancies is widely considered to be a major public-health imperative. The work of Isabel Sawhill and others has shown that high rates of unplanned births, particularly among poor and unwed mothers, contribute to poverty. When women are offered long-acting reversible contraceptives, like IUDs and implants, they overwhelmingly choose to get them inserted—and both unplanned births and abortions decrease as a result.

If Planned Parenthood is defunded, it’s exactly these preventative and family-planning services that would take a hit. Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics already aren’t allowed to spend federal dollars on abortions. The vast majority of the money Planned Parenthood gets from the federal government is spent on STD screenings and family-planning services, mostly for low-income women.

At a closer reading, though, #UnplannedParenthood seems to be more of a catchy juxtaposition to the Planned Parenthood name than overt boosterism for surprise births. (If these people were actually promoting haphazard impregnation, presumably there would be far more tweets about the glories of Bacardi and flimsy condoms than about Jesus.)

Instead, the larger purpose seems to be to put many happy faces on the pro-life movement. All those people weren’t aborted! Isn’t that wonderful?

Of course it is. But it also assumes that the only reason for an abortion would be that you're mildly surprised by your pregnancy status, and uncertain what to do next. That fails to capture the experience of a great many women facing incredibly complex choices.

#UnplannedParenthood reflects the sad trajectory of the abortion debate. Unless and until Roe v. Wade is overturned (a very unlikely event), advocates on both sides are left to scratch at the margins of abortion rights. The undercover videos released by the pro-life Center for Medical Progress, as well as the laws that legislate abortion-clinic hallway widths and waiting periods, aren’t aimed at ending abortion entirely. They’re all about worst-case scenarios. What if there were a callous abortionist who sells fetal tissue for profit? (There’s no evidence of that yet.) What if there’s a woman who is bleeding out during an abortion procedure and can’t escape the clinic because the hallways are too narrow? (It happens, but freakishly rarely.)

Similarly, #UnplannedParenthood focuses on the best possible way an unplanned pregnancy could go. It’s a surprise—a happy one—and the mother chooses not to terminate. Whether through circumstance, luck, or fortitude, the parents find a way to raise that child to become a functional member of society.

That’s a great thing. But it’s not what happens every time a woman is denied contraception or an abortion—far from it. And it’s unlikely the people behind the movement would truly like to see the return of a world where “unplanned parenthood” is the only option.