Susan G. Komen’s priceless gift

A radical decision woke the country up to an alarming rightward drift, and gave new life to women’s health advocacy

Published February 4, 2012 12:00AM (EST)

  (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)
(Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

The startling intensity that we saw this week in response to Susan G. Komen for the Cure's decision to pull its grants from Planned Parenthood -- an intensity that prompted the Komen foundation to reverse its decision today -- may be the best thing that’s happened to the conversation about reproductive rights in this country for decades. It certainly should be.

Practically since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, reproductive rights activists have been left to play stilted defense against ideological opponents who grabbed the language of morality, life, love and family as their own, always deploying it with reference to the fetus. The rhetoric around reproductive rights, which has more recently begun to creep into arguments over contraception, has become suffocating in its emotional self-righteousness, but too muscular, too ubiquitous to effectively combat.

But the overreach by the Komen foundation, while surely intended to strike yet another blow on the side of antiabortion activism, succeeded instead in waking a powerful constituency -- armed with precisely the language and emotional heft they’ve been lacking for too long.

That this week’s blow against Planned Parenthood came not directly from John Boehner’s House of Representatives – which, ever since taking power a year ago promising to focus on jobs, has manfully focused on the single task of attacking women’s reproductive rights – but instead from a popular, officially nonpartisan organization dedicated wholly to women’s healthcare somehow brought this argument into the open.

The response to Komen was surely so tinderbox explosive because it had been building with every politically theatrical investigation launched by Cliff Stearns and every grisly abortion scene enacted on the House floor by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith. But it was not just Washington wonkery, and was not ginned up or amplified by professional political cranks. It was the reflexive kick of a shin hit just below the knee, and the visceral anger spilled everywhere, from a Planned Parenthood Saved Me tumblr and onto Facebook, where people posted images of Komen’s pink ribbon cut in half. It poured from bank accounts, including that of New York Mayor and former Republican Michael Bloomberg.

It came from often dispassionate media figures like Andrea Mitchell, was tweeted by novelists like Judy Blume, Terry McMillan and William Gibson, actors Ellen Barkin and Martha Plimpton, politicos like Donna Brazile, Reps. Gwen Moore and Jackie Speiers, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and from 22 senators including Frank Lautenberg, Al Franken and Kirsten Gillibrand, who signed a letter urging Komen to reverse its decision. It came from callers to radio programs, announcing their intentions to drop out of Komen races, and from the American Association of University Women, which canceled a scheduled service event with Komen. In the three days after Komen’s announcement of its Planned Parenthood break, Planned Parenthood received more than $3 million in donations, said PPFA president Cecile Richards in a press call on Friday.

More than that, though: The starkly observable attack against something as crucial and basic as breast exams for poor women, as well as the fact that so many divergent voices were pulled into it, meant that the conversation was not about partisan politics; it was about women. For the first time in what feels like forever, passion and fury were being loudly, proudly given in a full-throated voice, on behalf of women – women as moral actors; women as citizens with rights, health, bodies, freedoms; women as people with families and economic concerns.

Taken together, these factors mark this as a watershed moment in the contemporary conversation about reproductive rights. This is a story in which we see the possibility of a turned tide, a new way to gauge how the public actually feels about women’s rights and health, and a new way to talk about it, as well. Because what we saw this week was big. It was mass. It was emotional. This was so different from the various polls activists on both sides of the abortion question are always throwing around, polls that depend so much on how a question is asked; polls that offer far less clarity than head-banging confusion about where America stands on the issue of reproductive heath. This was not a poll. This was America announcing that it cared about women’s health, and more specifically, that it cared about Planned Parenthood.

In many ways, the activism that forced Komen to backtrack was ignited by Boehner’s House Republicans a year ago, when they voted to cut off all funding to Planned Parenthood because it provides abortion services. This despite the fact that since 1976’s Hyde Amendment, no federal money has been able to be used to provide abortion services. The organization Republicans want to squash provides more than 800,000 women a year with breast exams, more than 4 million Americans with testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, and 2.5 million people with contraception, which prevents unintended pregnancy and thus abortion. But playing to what they must imagine is overriding public sentiment, Republicans have worked tirelessly to lodge the image of Planned Parenthood as an abortion factory deep in the American imagination.

A year ago, some of the anger at this strategy began to bubble over. In response to Smith’s description of a second trimester abortion, read on the House floor, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier went to the House well and described her own painful second trimester abortion. “For you to stand on this floor and suggest that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought, is preposterous,” Speier said, directing her comments at Smith. “Planned Parenthood has a right to operate. Planned Parenthood has a right to provide services for family planning. Planned Parenthood has a right to offer abortions. The last time I checked, abortions were legal in this country … I would suggest to you that it would serve us all very well if we moved on with this process and started focusing on creating jobs for the Americans who desperately want them.”

It was around this time that a viral “Thank You Planned Parenthood” meme cropped up online. With participants noting the instances in which they had relied on PPFA for birth control, breast exams, gynelogical care, and yes, abortions. Twitter, Facebook and blogs began to be dotted with “I stand with Planned Parenthood” emblems. Comedian Lizz Winstead kicked off a tour called “Planned Parenthood, I am here for you.”

But this recent wave of defense of Planned Parenthood has remained broad, ambient. The politics of the congressional witch hunt have been so labyrinthine, so convoluted, that it has been difficult to know how to effectively harness an angry response. When, last fall, Rep. Cliff Stearns launched an investigation into PPFA’s bookkeeping, the move was so needless, such a trumped-up piece of political stagecraft (since PPFA does receive federal funds, it must scrupulously account for every dime it spends, no special investigation required) that it was hard to even know how to make sense of it, let alone respond. This week, a caller to WNYC’s “Brian Lehrer Show” professed her belief that the Stearns investigation centered on whether Planned Parenthood was performing late-term abortions.

The demonization of Planned Parenthood should have awakened the country to the radicalism of the right, and how far it has pushed the political conversation. It’s been hard to measure the degree of the radicalism, so slowly and unceasingly has it crept across our consciousness and the political discourse. But it’s important to remember how mainstream Planned Parenthood used to be. It was the respectable, even Republican, advocate for women’s health, including reproductive services; the leaders of the National Abortion Rights Action League were the activist agitators. Sen. Prescott Bush, the father of President George H.W. Bush, served as treasurer of Planned Parenthood’s first national fundraising campaign. Richard Nixon signed the family planning legislation in 1970 that authorized its federal funding.

As a congressman, George Bush and his wife, Barbara, were reliable friends of the organization. Barry Goldwater’s wife, Betty, was a founding member of Arizona Planned Parenthood; President Gerald Ford’s wife, Betty, was a high-profile supporter of the group. More recently, Ann Romney, wife of the 2012 GOP presidential front-runner, donated $150 to Planned Parenthood in 1994. And when a Romney relative died of a botched abortion in 1963, the family asked that memorial donations go to Planned Parenthood.

But what happened this week was a clarifying moment. Right-wing extremism, coming this time not from the partisan mill but from a mainstream women’s organization, was put in a direct and unflattering spotlight. Suddenly, so much was clear, and finally, the response was unified and thunderous. Right-wing overreach -- and the backlash it inspired -- feels a lot like the way other radical GOP power grabs in the last year have galvanized the public to fight back. Attacks on collective bargaining, public workers and unions by Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana have produced mass mobilization in those states, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. Public workers – cops, firefighters, nurses, teachers, paramedics, sanitation workers – once were the proud backbone of the middle class. Now they find themselves derided by the GOP as the new welfare queens who are taking more than their fair share. Ohio voters repealed a law that abolished collective bargaining in November, and pro-union organizers in Wisconsin have forced a recall election for Gov. Scott Walker.

Efforts to restrict voting rights are likewise waking up the citizenry; Maine repealed a law that banned same-day voting and registration in November, and Ohio blocked a voter photo ID bill. Even on the issue of reproductive rights, a draconian “personhood” amendment to the state constitution failed to pass in Mississippi, one of the reddest of the red states. Overreach by the right has re-inspired movements – unions, voting rights, women’s rights -- that have too long been dormant and too easily dismissed by their ideological opponents as outside the mainstream of American values, when in fact, they used to represent the most American of values.

For defenders of Planned Parenthood, and more broadly for reproductive rights activists, this moment of repositioning is a valuable one. Until now, it has proven very difficult for advocates to resuscitate their side with language anywhere near as powerful as that used by antiabortion forces. Instead they have relied too heavily on the fungible, limp, endlessly open-ended language of “choice.” (Even among “pro-choice” advocates, the “I choose my choice!” joke from "Sex and the City" has become a ubiquitous critique.)

But what happened this week was powerful. It was mass. It was direct. It was emotional. And it restores women as the moral center of this conversation -- which is where they belong.

By Joan Walsh

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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