OK, this one might get me in trouble… Thoughts on Komen vs. Planned Parenthood

Ah, remember Inauguration Day, 2009?  Your dear correspondent spent the run-up trapped in the now infamous Purple Tunnel of Doom, only to be turned away from the Mall just minutes before noon, when our new president – so “articulate and bright and clean” – would take the oath of office and smite all partisanship, bitterness, and polarization with his first mellifluous utterance.  Goodbye, culture wars!  Goodbye, gay- and abortion-obsessed special interests.  We gonna be dealin’ with real problems now!  War!  Recession!  Energy!  Real transformative shit!

I totally wanted to believe.

But this week’s flap over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s funding for Planned Parenthood underscores the enduring reality about the culture wars, and what happens when partisans ditch Redcoat-style warfare for guerrilla tactics meant to constantly test their foes’ resolve.  I don’t follow the abortion issue particularly closely – I think of the procedure in Clintonian terms, in that it should be legal, safe, and rare – but it seems that the pro-choice community has been losing ground over the past couple of decades, whether through court decisions, legislative changes, or the creeping belief in public circles that abortion is simply immoral (never mind the polls showing a consistent pro-choice majority nationwide).  And Komen’s decision – reversed yesterday! – reflects the expanding battlefield in the pro-choice/pro-life fight.  This is total war.

What amuses me about the Komen incident is the evasive language and phony rationales couching both sides of the debate.  Here’s a quick recap, with translations, on the discussion thus far…

Komen: We’re sorry, but it’s against our policy to fund organizations under Congressional investigation. Oh look, Planned Parenthood is under investigation.  What a shame. (We think that the money we give to PP ultimately funds abortions.)

PP: But we use that money for breast cancer screening only.  You’re supposed to be against breast cancer.   By cutting our funding you’re denying poor women access to preventative healthcare. (Abortions?  We hardly do abortions.  They represent only 3% of all services we provide.  We’re really providers of all this other stuff!)

Komen:  Wow, people are pissed.  OK, OK.  Well, PP, I guess we’ll still give you this year’s money.  And you may still apply for a grant again next year.  But you might not get it.  Competition and all.  Just sayin’.  (You win this time. But good luck getting that cash next year, you abortionists!)

PP:  Aw, thanks.  (We’d better find some new resources.)

It’s interesting that a measly $650,000 has become a proxy struggle over, essentially, the future of abortion rights in America.  If this were the extent of the issue – filling a $650,000 hole – folks might respond with a collective yawn.  Donors, after all, closed the gap in a scant 24 hours.  But when you consider that Planned Parenthood gets nearly 80% of its revenue from government or non-profit-type sources, a policy tweak such as the one at Komen, on a broader scale, could really run the organization out of business.  But what is that business?  PP’s 2010 annual report (the latest available on its website) breaks down its service portfolio by the number of tests, screenings, treatments, and procedures it performs, which is where it gets its 3% abortion figure.  Yet in much of the popular consciousness, PP’s business comes down to one thing: the early termination of pregnancies.

So PP responds with campaigns designed, essentially, to change the subject, or at least make it a hell of a lot more complicated.  No, they say, we provide a full basket of reproductive health services, which on the rare occasion includes abortion. (Perhaps you’ve been waived down by earnest twenty-somethings shilling on PP’s behalf in Columbia Heights? Talk to these kids – how can you avoid it, really? – and you’ll get the whole spiel.)  But what’s the use of changing the subject when everyone knows that the real issue is that 3% of services that a significant minority of Americans are dead-set against? I didn’t get it for a long time, but now I think I understand better.

The mistake of the wholly binary Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life debate of the ’80s and ’90s was that the two sides were competing in support of (what seemed to me) an all-or-nothing policy position.  Either you’re 100% against all abortions (with a generally accepted exception for victims of incest, etc.) or you’re 100% for a woman’s right to choose, privately, even if she is a minor (within the first trimester only, please).  This approach – either you’re with us or against us, essentially, with deference to the Bush Doctrine – left folks in the middle, who had a more nuanced and circumstances-driven view of the issue, out of the discussion, so they sat it out.  I for one lamented the diehards’ fixation when there seemed to be so much other more important stuff going on.

But then the partisans grew wiser. They figured out that our leaders, beyond offering bland declarations of opposition to or support of abortion rights, weren’t going to do much to alter the status quo.  They saw that the courts, and most importantly the Supreme Court (so long as Ruth Bader Ginsburg was alive), would do little to overturn Roe. vs. Wade.  So they did the only sensible thing – they tried to change the hearts and minds of the long-overlooked middle, most of whom support abortion rights but are queasy about late-term abortions and malleable on matters of adoption, parental notification, ultrasound guilt-trips, and the like.  So pro-lifers started their guerrilla campaign, nibbling away at abortion rights on the edges, and outfits like Planned Parenthood responded with offering ever-wider women’s health services, hoping maintain the support of that squishy middle.

It’s a tough battle, and I don’t envy the challenge facing PP, NARAL, and the rest.  The pro-life position benefits from the fact that it’s unambiguous, whereas a priori the pro-choice gang has to split some difficult hairs in the service of science, health, and morality.  When does life start?  (Sometimes I think pro-choicers are too dismissive of conservative arguments on this point.  To me it’s an interesting ethical question.)  AND: Is an adult human’s life prospects – is society’s health – of greater value than that sparkle in someone’s eye, the blank slate possibility of the future?

For some, these quandaries, set against the logical clarity of the pro-life side, suggest the untruth and untenability of the pro-choice stance, but for me it reflects the reality of adapting matters of faith and conscience to the tough choices involving public health. So do 6000 overnight donors to Planned Parenthood.  And now, apparently, so do the conservative-aligned execs at the Komen Foundation, if only on the issue of breast exams.  The battle won – it feels like a win, doesn’t it? – the pro-choice side awaits the next attack.

This skirmish illustrates – as if we need further examples after the Arab Spring and the recent SOPA setback – the power of social media to galvanize public support and force swift changes in the public discourse.  But Komen’s switcheroo shows only that people will stand behind preventative mammograms, not necessarily abortion access. Still, I think anything that mires the extremities of the pro-life agenda, however temporarily, is a good thing.  And if the federal government is unwilling to settle the issue definitively, as everyone can expect, I look forward to more street fights such as these.  Let the marketplace, as it were, decide, organization by organization and state by state.

Yesterday’s triumph reminds me, actually, of my worthless purple inauguration ticket.  It’s a nice memento, but also symbolic of the false hope of Change We Can Believe In. At least as far as the culture wars are concerned, post-partisanship has so far proved as substantial as a Shepard Fairey print. I can only hope that, as the abortion debate continues to evolve, we end up with a system of legal, safe, and accessible abortion services combined with sensible alternatives, particularly adoption, that respect the nuances of each woman’s circumstances.


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