When Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison told readers what she was going to do for George W. Bush on Presidents Day -- give a gift in his name to Planned Parenthood -- she could not have foreseen what would happen next. An e-mail detailing her idea was unleashed upon e-mail in boxes everywhere and then forwarded a zillion times, bringing Planned Parenthood its largest surge in contributions in recent history: more than $300,000 for far. And the special day is still 10 days away.
"I am very gratified," says Morrison by phone from L.A. "I think it's better than a diet, the way it is swirling around. I must say my pro-choice Republican mother is very proud of me."
Ever since the e-mail started circulating, phone lines at Planned Parenthood chapters around the country have been ringing off the hook; mail has been coming in by the boxload, and interest has been so high that the organization has set up a Web site to make it easier to donate.
"For every action you take to dismantle women's reproductive rights in this country, I and millions like me will take action -- like this contribution to Planned Parenthood -- to support those rights," writes a woman from Greenbrae, Calif., in an e-mail posted on the Planned Parenthood site. This, and countless other testimonials, point to recent actions by President Bush to limit funding and support for reproductive rights as the reason for their increased activism in the long-stalled abortion debate. "I believe in LIFE, but equally I believe in a woman's CHOICE regarding her reproductive rights," writes yet another person. "I voted for you, but have been disappointed with the public positions you have taken so far."
In Bush's first month in office he has appointed outspoken anti-abortion proponent John Ashcroft as attorney general, has banned federal funds for international family planning clinics if they mention abortion as an option and has directed Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services (another outspoken anti-abortion advocate), to review the safety of RU-486, also known as the abortion pill, which was approved for use in this country last fall. In addition, two Republican lawmakers introduced a bill this week requiring doctors to be trained in performing abortions before they are allowed to administer the pill.
"I think it says that for years people thought their [abortion] rights were secure," says Molly Smith Watson, who is overseeing the donations for Planned Parenthood. "In the last eight years under Clinton, almost an entire generation of women has come of age without knowing about direct attacks on their right to choose. And frankly it has been over 30 years since Roe vs. Wade was enacted, so people can't remember a time when it has been repealed. They couldn't until George Bush showed his intention was to repeal it."
Indeed, says Watson, this current campaign is remarkable because it is a completely grass-roots protest of recent policies. Also, many of the donors have never given to Planned Parenthood before; and a large number of the online contributions have addresses with .edu at the end, leading Watson to believe that a lot of college students are getting involved after a long period of complacency.
A spokesman for Bush says he did not know about the campaign, but that it will not deter him from continuing with his pro-life policies. At this point, spokesman Jimmy Orr says, Bush does not believe there's enough support in the nation to overturn Roe vs. Wade. But, adds Orr, "the president will continue his efforts to promote a culture of life, and that includes steps to make abortion more rare, such as parental notification, promoting adoptions and a ban on partial-birth abortion."
Rachel Vagts was at work when she received the Presidents Day e-mail from a friend. She then forwarded it to about 10 more people and told countless others; they, she believes, sent it on to even more. After several days of thinking about it, she logged on to the Planned Parenthood site and donated $15. "I have always supported their cause philosophically, but I never gave them money before," says the 29-year-old college archivist from Decorah, Iowa, a small town in the northeast part of the state. "Where I live, you have to travel a long way to get services, but they exist ... I'm worried that we could get to a point that there will be no one in Iowa providing services."
The concept of donating money in someone else's name is not new. Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, used the tactic in 1990 to fend off the Christian Action Council, which had threatened a boycott of Patagonia stores if the company followed through on its plans to donate a portion of its profits to Planned Parenthood. Patagonia wrote a letter informing the CAC that if it chose to picket, Patagonia would pay a certain amount of money to Planned Parenthood for every person who picketed its stores. The group backed down instantly. Patagonia also deployed the same tactic several years later when it was threatened by logging activists, who were calling the outfit's 800 number in droves. The company ended up donating $1,600 to a forest protection group before the calls stopped coming in.
Planned Parenthood's Watson says the organization is receiving so many donations -- about 1,000 a day -- that she has had to call on extra volunteers to help handle the onslaught. She says it has not yet been decided how the money will be spent, but she believes it will go to the group's general fund, which is for education, advocacy and litigation on reproductive rights.
What also hasn't been decided is how the group is going to deliver all of the messages to the president. "It has become overwhelming, and we will probably laser-print everything and send it in bulk to the White House," she says. "But if we get many more thousands, we may hand-deliver them. But I don't believe George Bush will allow us to walk up to his desk, so we will probably just send them."
Will the president actually read them? Orr says he doesn't know.