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Why the Planned Parenthood Fight Won’t Go Away

Depending on which side you fall, the organization represents the best or worst of us as Americans.

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards testifies. Image via C-Span screenshot

The United States government won’t shut down, for now. It was a fight that had feminists donning pink and pro-lifers blacking out their social media photos. Speaker John Boehner’s power evaporated under the press of his right flank, but in the name of continuing governmental operation, the long-standing abortion opponent made way for a temporary armistice before stepping down. When government shutdown became entangled with Planned Parenthood, the tired rerun of Congressional dysfunction took new life and fired passions at the base of both parties. A majority of Republicans support a funding cut-off; a paltry 19 percent of Democrats favor stripping funding. Planned Parenthood, as ever, is a darling of the left and a demon to the right.

As Washington Post writer Amber Phillips put it, “the Planned Parenthood storm has proved that it has the potential to gather oxygen and suck in everything around it.” The storm nearly put the brakes on our federal government (and still could in December), but it almost isn’t just about Planned Parenthood, the organization, anymore. The passions evoked by this battle are about something more emotionally salient, and therefore strategically important, than the simple facts of the debate.

Planned Parenthood is a symbol, that depending on which side you fall, represents the best or worst of us as Americans. For the left, Planned Parenthood signifies a relentless (and in some states, slipping) battle to protect women’s rights to bodily self-determination. It’s a place that ensures women, poor, rural, young, old, have a voice in determining what happens to their bodies and their families’ futures. For the GOP, Planned Parenthood typifies the fundamental immoral breakdown of the left, a willingness to kill babies for convenience: In their eyes, a desertion of the basic (and religious) principles that ought to bind a good, free people.

Now, in the wake of undercover videos (independently evaluated to be altered) and charged accusations from Republican candidates Carly Fiorino and Ben Carson, to some, the Planned Parenthood moniker has come to represent an even more dangerous and deeply deranged abomination. If you are inclined to believe the worst about Planned Parenthood, now it can be reviled even more deeply than ever before. And to voters who are new to the issue, the horrifying, though dubious, accusations of the right can become a compelling story of progressive politics gone amok.

In reality, Planned Parenthood is an agency that performs hundreds of thousands of breast exams and pap smears annually, millions of birth control services, and millions of STI tests and treatments. Abortions account for three percent of its services; less than 1 percent of its health centers provide donated fetal tissue for research.

And for supporters of Planned Parenthood who observed how Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards was interrupted and browbeat at her hearing this week, the smack of disregard for her was as potent as her opposition’s general disregard for women’s right to exercise their reproductive choices autonomously. It was too similar to the silencing American women experience in so many aspects of their lives—abuse, unequal working conditions, simple mansplaining. That silencing takes a lot of forms, from disrespect to death threats and intimidation, like those leveled at #ShoutYourAbortion co-creator Amelia Bonow, and only serves to continually suppress the facts of women’s reproductive health. For example, at Richard’s hearing, Rep. Brenda Lawrence was at pains to point out her male colleagues’ simple misunderstandings about how women’s healthcare works; she had to disabuse assertions that federal dollars are used to fund abortions (they aren’t). “It is exhausting to hear a philosophy of attack, to just use information that is totally incorrect.” As if through simple repetition, Lawrence said in an exasperated tone, untruths will become factual. (Case in point— Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s ridiculous off-balance chart.)

Image by The All-Nite Images via Flickr

Back in 2013, during the last threatened government shut-down showdown, then over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), rhetoric had become so sharp, the public opposition so fearful, that talk of death panels was still common parlance. Despite being dubbed PolitiFact’s 2009 lie of the year, that manipulation of convenience lived on like a secret revealed, a conspiracy to be warded off. And eventually something your nutty FOX News-watching uncle believed.

Like the picture of Obamacare formed by death panel-fearing Republicans, the new, even more evil picture of Planned Parenthood, coming from cobbled together sting videos, is likely to stick with conservative voters, truth notwithstanding. While death panels might seem pretty scary, to conservatives that believe Carly Fiorina’s version of Planned Parenthood—a fetus, heart beating, legs kicking on a cold slab, a tiny harvest for organs—the issue behind this latest appropriations war is even more terrifying, the measure of a country that sanctions and profits from the disassembly of live babies.

But aside from the gathering storm around the video releases, there are other reasons Planned Parenthood was primed to rise to the top of the issues heap. Even without the new layers of outrage, the war on Planned Parenthood would be an immensely helpful tool for a Republican party that is at minimum unsettled by Donald Trump’s poll numbers. Trump, whose own history on women’s health issues is confusing is, as Politico describes him, a force that “single-handedly has moved the GOP to the right on immigration, to the left on free trade and in circles on pretty much everything else.” Most would color the Republican leadership a deep shade of scared. As Congressman Mick Mulvaney baldly told The Atlantic a few weeks ago, “Our leadership has probably one chance left to save the party, and it’s on Planned Parenthood.” He argued that if Republicans didn't really put in an effort to vote it down and keep up the fight, then Donald Trump would be the nominee and that would redefine the party.

Planned Parenthood is a powerful rallying point now, not only against the left, but also against non-conformist Republicans like Trump. And for a GOP that lost on marriage equality—the recent hurrahs for Kim Davis notwithstanding—and facing an increasingly diverse electorate, it matters to still have a reliable issue around which to organize the troops, a moral issue around which to build a coalition and give a fractured party meaning.

Of course, as much as President Obama’s election represented a sea change (or his name, religion and family origin did to his detractors), Hillary Clinton’s campaign likewise symbolizes an unapologetic feminism. She’s been the presumptive nominee for years, and while email releases stir the news cycle a few days at a time, the possible presidency of a woman president long outspoken on women’s issues is threatening to those made nervous by women in power. Women like Cecile Richards, who are jabbed for making too much money. Women, patients, who make their own healthcare decisions, even if they live in poverty and have a lack of access to other forms of power.

When social media bled pink on Tuesday, with women telling their Planned Parenthood stories—close calls with cancer, needed surgeries and, yes, needed abortions—thousands of women who otherwise aren’t vocal women’s advocates waded into the fray. An otherwise exhausting and too common federal budget battle got too personal to ignore. It was about their bodies, their rights.

Republicans need to keep Planned Parenthood at the fore in order to find direction within their own scattering and increasingly cannibalistic party, and Democrats are likely to benefit from their base’s strong allegiance with the organization. But Planned Parenthood means too much to us—those who love it and those who hate it—to quietly drift away from the center of debate. At least until the election, and likely long after if Hillary Clinton gets her way, Planned Parenthood is going to remain in the hot beat of our political spotlight, because claiming rights over women’s bodies and the contents of their reproductive systems means so much.

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