This turns out to have been the best week Planned Parenthood has had in years. The bad news that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation was pulling its grants for breast cancer screening was quickly replaced by a flood of donations - including $250,000 from New York’s Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg - and an outcry so huge that, by Friday, Komen had reversed its decision entirely.
And in the meantime, in those three days of fury, Planned Parenthood got precisely the publicity it needs. Indeed, even in the midst of the crisis, some Planned Parenthood officials could see the silver lining. ”It’s creating an opportunity for us to really educate the public,” Tricia Wajda, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, told me on Thursday. ”We haven’t been able to effectively communicate our preventative services before.”
That’s the trouble with this country’s absurdly-polarized abortion debate. In the absence of any real prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade, the anti-abortion movement has turned to various end-run ideas. They’ve cut federal funding for abortion except in the case of rape, incest, or endangerment of the mother, yet abortions persist. They’ve tried outlawing abortion in backhanded ways, but even Mississippi wouldn’t pass a ballot measure to give a fetus the legal rights of a person.
And so they’ve increasingly gone after the nation’s largest abortion provider. Republicans in Congress have tried, and failed, to cut the group’s federal funding entirely. Renegade crusaders have launched sting operations: a year ago, amateur cameras caught a New Jersey Planned Parenthood worker on camera, advising a man who was posing as a pimp.
That woman was fired and the moment passed, but the enemies were clearly emboldened. Last fall, Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Republican from Florida, launched a highly dubious investigation into whether Planned Parenthood was misusing public funds. Komen changed its rules to say it wouldn’t give grants to groups under formal investigation - allowing Komen’s CEO to insist, this week, that ”we will never bow to political pressure.”
Even abortion opponents didn’t buy that line; they praised Komen up and down the Internet, precisely for bowing to the pressure they’ve exerted. In the process, wound up hurting their own cause.
Lack of forthrightness doesn’t do Komen much good, especially since it comes after a string of self-inflicted public relations wounds. Half the country howled with laughter after Komen sponsored pink boxes of KFC fried chicken. More recently, the advocacy group Breast Cancer Action slammed Komen for commissioning a perfume, ”Promise Me,” that contains chemicals that have been linked to cancer.
And while Komen was mired in damage control mode this week, Planned Parenthood used the spotlight to remind everyone how much of its work has nothing to do with abortion. In 2010, according to the group’s annual report, Planned Parenthood provided contraception services for 2.2 million women, along with 3.5 million tests for sexually transmitted infections, 1.4 million emergency contraception kits, 1.1 million pregnancy tests, and 1.6 million cancer screenings - including Pap smears, colonoscopies, and breast exams for poor and rural women who might not have been able get those tests anywhere else.
Planned Parenthood also performed 329,445 abortions, which amounted to 3 percent of its caseload, and 27 percent of the abortions performed in the United States each year. The group has done its best not to talk about that. The introduction to its annual report doesn’t mention abortion once. That’s the wrong tactic, too: It only opens Planned Parenthood to accusations of shadiness, and paves the way for sham investigations.
Instead, Planned Parenthood should own its place in the abortion debate, and revel in what this week’s outcry says about the national mood. Yes, plenty of people feel ambivalent about abortion - including many people who label themselves pro-choice. But those same people feel strongly about women’s health.
Antiabortion groups should also take note. Now that it’s clear that attacking Planned Parenthood has the opposite effect, perhaps a different tactic is in order. Groups like Komen and Planned Parenthood have proven they can work together to fight breast cancer. Perhaps they could also join forces to lower abortion rates in the most effective way: With good access to contraception and full-service health care.
Note to readers: This column was printed before the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast-cancer charity reversed its decision to cut breast-screening grants to Planned Parenthood