A sea of pink flooded the corner of College and Chapel on the evening of September 29th. Planned Parenthood volunteers passed out pink t-shirts branded with the organization’s logo and loud, bright pink signs emblazoned with statements of support. The crowd, a mix of Yale students and other Connecticut residents, lined the sidewalk on all four corners of the intersection. Chants of “this is what Planned Parenthood looks like” and “hey-hey-ho-ho, patriarchy has got to go” drowned out the shouts of a small group of counter-protesters, who waved graphic signs and stood at the edge of the crowd of Planned Parenthood supporters. Dozens of cars passing through the intersection enthusiastically honked their support, eliciting fresh waves of cheers. In this manner, the group declared their support for Planned Parenthood on the organization’s national Pink Out Day, celebrating the right to abortion established decades ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fifty years ago, just blocks away from the site of September’s demonstration, Connecticut residents embarked on another fight for reproductive rights. On November 1, 1961, Planned Parenthood opened a center in New Haven. Nine days later, New Haven police shut it down. Officers arrested two people: Estelle Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Doctor C. Lee Buxton of Yale Medical School, a volunteer at the clinic. The court charged Griswold and Buxton with distributing birth control to married women, at the time an illegal practice in Connecticut. In 1965, the Supreme Court reviewed the case, and, fifty years later, Griswold v. Connecticut is remembered as the landmark ruling that first explicitly stated that the Constitution guarantees a right to privacy.
The right to privacy established under Griswold formed the legal basis for several future cases involving reproductive rights. Chief among these is Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, which declared that a woman has a right to an abortion in all states. Despite the forty-plus years since the Roe decision, the issue of reproductive rights—abortion in particular—has hardly diminished in importance.
“[Reproductive rights] have become the political and judicial litmus test for a lot of people,” Caroline Chiappetti, president of Law Students for Reproductive Justice at Harvard Law School, told The Politic. The opposing viewpoints of the issue clash everywhere, from courtrooms and legislative chambers to snarky Tweets and impassioned Facebook posts.
Planned Parenthood, a national family planning and women’s health services organization, is at the epicenter of the most recent controversy. Following the release of several undercover videos allegedly showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the illegal sale of fetal tissue, calls to defund Planned Parenthood, and a subsequent defense of the organization, have swept Congress and social media. This is hardly a new situation for Planned Parenthood. It has been the target of repeated, concerted attacks by the anti-abortion opposition for years.
This particular controversy began with the release of a video on July 28 by the Center for Medical Progress, a self-described group of citizen journalists. The first video, obtained by undercover activists using hidden cameras, included conversations with high-ranking Planned Parenthood officials on the topic of fetal tissue donation. The Center for Medical Progress accused Planned Parenthood of generating illegal profit from the sale of aborted fetuses.
In a statement released on the Planned Parenthood website, Eric Ferrero, its vice president of communications, addressed the financial aspect of fetal tissue donation as benefiting neither the patient nor the nonprofit.
“In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed,” he wrote in the statement.
The video and several similar videos that followed have been dismissed as heavily edited and creating a false impression of the fetal tissue donation program. While the use of fetal tissue for research is legal under federal law, the accusation that Planned Parenthood illegally profits from the donations led the House Judiciary Committee to launch an investigation. The first in a series of hearings entitled “Planned Parenthood Exposed: Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation’s Largest Abortion Provider” took place on September 9th.
In a statement released prior to the hearing, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee Chairman Trent Franks (R-AZ) wrote: “We are pleased to have the opportunity to question a panel of experts on this issue in order to ascertain how Planned Parenthood may have violated federal laws in the course of its alleged practices, and the atrocities associated with altering abortions in order to obtain the body parts of the fetuses.”
Priscilla Smith, director of the Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, joined three other experts in testifying at the hearing.
“The hearing was an anti-abortion hearing,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “They weren’t investigating what was really going on with Planned Parenthood. They didn’t call a Planned Parenthood witness, they didn’t call the people who had examined the tapes…they didn’t even ask for the full tapes.”
According to Smith, several lawmakers running the hearing seemed to harbor misconceptions about Planned Parenthood.
“The biggest misconception was that no one who goes to Planned Parenthood is a parent. They thought by definition if you went to Planned Parenthood you were not a parent,” she said. “Sixty percent of women who get abortions are already parents.”
Congress’ investigation into Planned Parenthood continued with testimony by the organization’s president, Cecile Richards, on September 29. In her remarks, she addressed the edited nature of the videos.
“The outrageous accusations leveled against Planned Parenthood based on heavily doctored videos are offensive and categorically untrue,” she said during her testimony.
The hearing came as Republicans doubled down on efforts to introduce legislation that imposes further limits on abortions, such as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which passed the House of Representatives last May. The Act calls for a federal ban on abortions starting at week 20 of a pregnancy, with exceptions for endangerment of the mother’s life, rape, or incest. These exceptions are also subject to new restrictions: the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act requires women to report rape to law enforcement before they can get an abortion, a requirement that deviates from current policy.
Political opponents are also attacking Planned Parenthood’s funding. Currently, Planned Parenthood receives government funding through two sources: the Title X Family Planning program and Medicaid. By statute, no funds received via Title X grants may be used to perform abortions. Medicaid funds may be used in abortion procedures only in cases involving the aforementioned exceptions: endangerment of the mother’s life, rape, or incest. These exceptions are dealt with on a state-by-state basis. This means that the funding Planned Parenthood receives from the federal government goes toward women’s health services which, in 2013, included 4.5 million tests and treatment for STIs, 3.6 million contraception related services, 1.1 million pregnancy tests and prenatal services, and nearly 1 million cancer screenings. In other words, no federal dollars are going toward abortions that fall outside of the exempted situations.
Planned Parenthood’s role as the biggest women’s health services provider for low-income women prompted a spirited defense from Democrats in Congress. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) unequivocally stated that she stood with Planned Parenthood.
“The Republican vote to defund Planned Parenthood is just one more piece of a deliberate, methodical, orchestrated, right-wing attack on women’s rights,” she said in a speech delivered to Congress on August 3.
Politicians against defunding Planned Parenthood reflect the opinion of most of the country. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released September 28 indicated that six in ten Americans oppose defunding the nonprofit.
The strategy to defund Planned Parenthood temporarily stalled on September 30, when Congress passed a budget that included funding for the organization. This budget is set to fund the government through December 11, after which several conservative congressmen plan to raise the issue of Planned Parenthood funding again.
One such congressman is Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who has openly supported blocking Planned Parenthood’s funding to the point of a government shutdown. He reiterated this sentiment in the first GOP debate. During the debate, Cruz called for Republicans to stand by their principles in the fight to defund Planned Parenthood.
“We shouldn’t be sending $500 million of taxpayer money to funding an ongoing criminal enterprise,” he said.
The subject of women’s health services and Planned Parenthood specifically has been a popular one in coverage of the 2016 election. Candidate Carly Fiorina referenced the Center for Medical Progress videos in the debate. She described a disturbing image of an aborted fetus kicking its legs on a table while medical practitioners discussed prolonging its life to harvest organs. This image was roundly discredited by fact-checkers and multiple media outlets, who reported that it never appeared in any of the released videos. In another episode featuring a presidential candidate, former governor of Florida Jeb Bush came under fire for saying, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars in funding for women’s health programs.” He later admitted that he misspoke and instead meant to refer solely to federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
On the other side, Democratic presidential candidates have reiterated their support for Planned Parenthood.
“I’m proud to stand with Planned Parenthood. I’ll never stop fighting to protect the ability and right of every woman in this country to make her own health decisions,” said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a video released on August 3.
In a similar vein, Senator Bernie Sanders conveyed his support for Planned Parenthood in an interview with Univision’s Jorge Ramos.
“I think a lot of this attack, to be honest with you, comes from people who simply do not believe that a woman should have a right to control her own body,” he said.
These statements from candidates of both parties indicate the large role reproductive rights will play in national elections.
“[The debate over abortion] has often been a part of politics and elections, and I see no reason why 2016 will be any different,” Brigitte Amiri, a Senior Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Reproductive Freedom Project, told The Politic. “Perhaps it will create an opportunity for public conversation on the issue, for people to tell their elected officials and their soon-to-be elected officials how important this issue is to them.”
Beyond the immediacy of this most recent controversy and its political backlash lies the perilous state of reproductive rights in the U.S. Roe was hardly the final word on abortion. Since that ruling, states have passed laws restricting abortion, many of which have been declared constitutional in subsequent court cases. Amiri, as a litigator for the ACLU, fights cases around the country that restrict access to abortion and contraception. In her thirteen years in reproductive rights law, she has never been busier.
“I am confident in saying that we are under siege,” she said. “We’re in dire straits on the state of reproductive rights.”
She identified the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project’s primary goal as keeping clinic doors open. But doing so has become difficult in recent years, as states have codified abortion restrictions into law.
The Guttmacher Institute reported that 267 abortion restrictions have been implemented in 31 states since 2011. Restrictions include mandates that clinics conform to hospital-like physical standards, orders most are unable to comply with. These restrictions are called “TRAP” (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws—they require clinics that offer abortion services to comply with requirements that are more onerous than those demanded of other medical practices. These requirements can often be too costly for existing facilities to follow, causing abortion clinics to close.
“They are shutting down clinics more successfully than they have been able to in the past,” said Smith, director of Yale Law School’s Reproductive Justice program. “There are large parts of Texas where you can’t find an abortion provider for 500 miles. Mississippi has one abortion clinic left.”
The last clinic in Mississippi was threatened with closure in 2012 when the state legislature purposefully introduced unrealistic admitting privilege requirements. Advocates challenged the law and now the case, Currier v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, is pending review by the Supreme Court.
“[Currier] is just a stark highlight of what happens when restrictions upon restrictions get passed in a particular state,” said Amiri, the ACLU lawyer. “Mississippi dwindled to just one, and the legislature in Mississippi was determined to close that clinic.”
Connecticut, in comparison to many other states, has fewer abortion restrictions and far greater accessibility to abortion services, with 41 abortion providers in 2011. Providers in New Haven include Planned Parenthood and Yale Family Planning. Organizations providing women’s health services abound, with several near Yale.
The Planned Parenthood clinic, however, remains the primary distributor of health services for low-income women in the area. The rally on September 29th, which mirrored public demonstrations in cities and on college campuses across the country, emphasized the pivotal role Planned Parenthood plays in the community. Despite the negative politics and intense debate, Planned Parenthood is gradually rising above the controversy, just as it has so many times before.