At 100, Planned Parenthood at center of abortion debate

WASHINGTON DC- JUNE 09: President and CEO Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards onstage at the 2016 Planned Parenthood Action Fund Membership Event held during the Planned Parenthood National Convention at Washington Hilton on June 10, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Jennifer Graylock/WireImage)

WASHINGTON DC- JUNE 09: President and CEO Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards onstage at the 2016 Planned Parenthood Action Fund Membership Event held during the Planned Parenthood National Convention at Washington Hilton on June 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jennifer Graylock/WireImage)

As Planned Parenthood turns 100, the presidential race is spotlighting the often-controversial and conflicted role of the women’s health organization in American politics.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is a big supporter, but her Republican rival, Donald Trump, has expressed mixed views about the group. In early March he paid tribute to its “very good work for millions of women” while also keeping up a threat to cut off federal funding to the organization if it continues to offer abortion services.

That stand puts Trump partly at odds with Republican orthodoxy, which is consistently critical of Planned Parenthood over abortion services it provides. It’s a long way from the group’s work in its founding on October 16, 1916. Then American contraception activist and nurse Margaret Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York.

At the time women in many states did not yet have the right to vote. And various family planning measures were illegal in the United States at the time — the Comstock Laws outlawed the use of contraceptives and abortifacients. Despite police raid on Sanger’s clinic, and her own arrest, she founded the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and the American Birth Control League. The two family planning organizations would join forces to become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Today the nonprofit organization provides women, men and teenagers a wide range of medical services, including sexual education, contraception options, STD screenings, as well as tests and treatments for cervical cancer and other forms of cancer. Various Planned Parenthood clinics also provide abortions to patients.

Abortion fights

While controversy over birth control has hardly subsided, the abortion debate has only intensified. Since the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade decision that a right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, Planned Parenthood has been at the center of litigation around the issue.

In June, by a 5-3 vote the Supreme Court struck down a Texas abortion law, which critics contend would have shut down a large number of women’s health clinics in the Lone Star State — with 5.4 million females in the state of reproductive age.

That followed criticism of Planned Parenthood in 2015 after an anti-abortion group released undercover online videos, which it said depicted the nonprofit selling fetal organs for profit, in violation of medical ethics. Shortly after the release of the videos, Republicans began a push to defund the organization. During an often-contentious four-hour committee hearing, House Republicans accused Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards of spending $40 million on “lavish” priorities, including hosting pricey parties, flying first class and spending more time fundraising than focusing on women’s health care. Richards denied all the charges and pushed back, defending her organization’s work.

Funding for Planned Parenthood nearly led to a government shutdown in fall of that year and continues to hold up unrelated legislation on Capitol Hill. And those are only the latest defund efforts. In 2007 then-Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana became the first lawmaker to call for a cutoff of Planned Parenthood’s federal funds due to its abortion services. As Indiana governor and now Trump’s vice presidential nominee Pence has continued the criticism.

The embattled organization was thrust into the spotlight once again in November 2015 when a gunman opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, killing two civilians and one police officer.

Longtime criticism

Though the abortion issue has sharpened criticism of Planned Parenthood its long faced jabs over services its mission.

“I think it’s been a very long, hard struggle over the course of the past century,” said American University professor Elizabeth Sherman. “Ever since Margaret Sanger, ever since the early part of the 20th century, Planned Parenthood has been on the forefront of saying these services should not only be legal, but they should be available.”

At its century mark the organization is often playing defense.

“For many people, Planned Parenthood is the only place they can turn to,” says Dawn Laguens, executive vice president for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the group’s political arm. “Planned Parenthood may be the only place they can go in their community, or the only place that offers the screening or birth control method they need.”

Anti-abortion forces see it differently, arguing other organizations provide many of the same services a pregnant woman might seek.

“There are about 3,000 pregnancy centers in the country where she can go to get help, and it might be immediate health such as baby clothes, maternity clothes, and medical help,” says Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee.

“When it comes to other health care services, there are several thousands community health centers around the country that are pretty much funded by tax dollars that can provide the same services,” Tobias said. “Planned Parenthood is in the abortion business. Some of the other stuff they do is just a sideline.”

However, proponents of Planned Parenthood claim these alternatives do not provide the same kind of reproductive care it does.

“Too many of the ‘options’ provided by anti-abortion groups simply don’t provide the same kind of care — the lists of ‘alternatives’ provided include things like¬†dentist offices¬†and nursing homes,” Laguens said. “The truth is that people vote with their feet — and 2.5 million of them chose Planned Parenthood health centers each year.”

Political action

Those kind of debates are central to many 2016 political races, in which Planned Parenthood is playing an increasingly active role.

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Planned Parenthood Votes are running a $30 million 2016 electoral effort aimed at the presidential race and Senate contests. The two groups are targeting Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, with the hopes of helping secure a Clinton win, and getting Democratic Senate candidates across the finish line.

Under Richards — daughter of the late Democratic Texas Gov. Ann Richards — for the first time in its history, the organization endorsed a presidential candidate — Clinton — in the primaries.