In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act as the result of the crusading of one man—Anthony Comstock—who believed that birth control led to far too much sexiness and sexual enjoyment in America, and ought to be outlawed. The Comstock Act defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, and made it illegal to send birth control through the mail or to cross state lines with it. The act spawned similar laws—known collectively as the Comstock Laws—in twenty-four states. Fortunately for American women, Margaret Sanger believed passionately that a woman had a right to her own sexuality, which included both sexual enjoyment (an important component of sexual health) and reproductive choice. Margaret Sanger was the answer to Anthony Comstock—in 1916 she was arrested for opening the first birth control clinic in America. A few years later, in 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, and in 1923 she founded the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, which was renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942.
Sanger’s mission was always family planning—she wanted women to be able to enjoy their sexuality, but she also wanted them to be able to safely and effectively determine the number of children they would have, under all circumstances. She said, “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” Indeed, Ms. Sanger, indeed. And therein lies the controversy—in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries—around family planning.
In 1973, after Roe v. Wade determined that women had the right to safe, legal abortion based on the right to personal privacy (a component of self-ownership), Planned Parenthood began performing abortions. Abortions are an important component of reproductive freedom and healthcare: 3 out of 10 women in the U.S. will have an abortion by the time they are 45 years old. However, abortion is only a fraction (3 percent) of Planned Parenthood’s services.
Planned Parenthood is about sexual and reproductive knowledge, safety, health, and freedom—on their website, you can learn about sexual orientation and gender, STDs, pregnancy, and relationships. Infertility, miscarriage, information for teens, tools for parents—you name it, if it’s related to sexual well-being, Planned Parenthood provides information and services about it. And not just for women—the years from 2002 to 2012 saw an 83 percent increase in the number of male Planned Parenthood clients.
Undoubtedly, however, the primary beneficiaries of free or low-cost family planning services are poor women: 79 percent of their patients have incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty level. Let that sink in for a minute. Planned Parenthood is where women without resources—including vital knowledge—to take care of their bodies go for help. The current attempt to shut down these reproductive health care clinics will hit these women the hardest. Which means more unintended pregnancies, more STDs, a higher incidence of undetected breast cancer—the list goes on. And the idea—often floated by Planned Parenthood opponents—that women should simply go elsewhere for their healthcare is unsupportable, as there is often nowhere else to go.
Let’s take a look at the tactics the hard-core anti-family-planners are using:
- Misinformation About Sanger: Sanger aligned herself, either because of political reasons, personal convictions, or both–with eugenicists who believed that only some people were “fit” to reproduce. Eugenics was built on racist, classist, and ableist beliefs about the superiority of affluent white people: her alignment with them is deeply disturbing, and we need to discuss it honestly in any review of Sanger’s life. She said some troubling things, and quoted others; however, her quotes are often taken out of context to imply that Sanger’s entire mission was the elimination of black people. This is simply untrue—in fact, Sanger wanted birth control information to be available to poor women of color so that they could make informed decisions. See this article by Imani Gandi for a wonderful explanation of the ways in which misinformation about Sanger is being used to shame black women today.
- Misleading Video Footage: Planned Parenthood, at the request of its clients, collects fetal tissue for medical research. The practice, like abortion itself, is legal—and, as Margo Kaplan points out in this excellent article, it occurs at fertility clinics with no fanfare or controversy or undercover videos. Not so with Planned Parenthood—in an attempt to shut down clinics, an anti-abortion group called the Center for Medical Progress secretly filmed a discussion with senior director of medical services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, about fetal tissue. The video, as Robin Abearian puts it in the LA Times, “…was edited to make Nucatola, and Planned Parenthood, look like profit-mongering human-parts traffickers who could put Cruella de Vil to shame.”
- Threats of a Government Shutdown: The U.S. House is expected to vote this week on a bill to defund Planned Parenthood unless it stops offering abortions. The bill, sponsored by Representative Diane Black of TN, would stop federal funds to Planned Parenthood until the current investigations—spurred by the misleading video footage—are complete. The investigations have turned up no wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood, and Black is under pressure from some Republicans to force a government shutdown over the issue. A CNN/ORC poll released Monday finds that 71 percent of adults think it is more important to keep the government running than it is to force removal of Planned Parenthood funds.
The current tactics are not so far removed from Comstock’s legislative hysterics over a century ago—they amount to a lot of finger-wagging and head-shaking about sex and women. Now as then, the lives of women living in poverty are most deeply affected by losing access to reproductive healthcare. To learn more—and to do your part to make a difference in the lives of millions of American women, men, and young people—visit Stand with Planned Parenthood.