Are We Creating a Hobson’s Choice for Abortion Rights?

Is the demonization of abortion rights by the far right forcing women's advocates to make a Hobson's choice? To preserve basic health care access for women will we need to cede open defense of abortion rights?

Last week Rachel Maddow interviewed the President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Cecile Richards.  In her intro, Maddow alluded to the fact that while pro-choice advocates and politicians have been fiercely defending Planned Parenthood’s provision of critical health care services for women, they have simultaneously been downplaying the fact Planned Parenthood also provides abortion services.  Abortion services only account for approximately 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services.  The other 97% are health care services ranging from contraception, STD testing and treatment, breast cancer screenings, and other basic preventive health care services. 

But that same 3% of abortion services that is downplayed by those seeking to preserve critical health care services for vulnerable, low-income women is being used to demonize Planned Parenthood as nothing more than an abortion mill.  That demonization was front and center when Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) falsely claimed that “[i]f you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.”  But here’s the truth about Planned Parenthood:

…more than 90 percent of the health care services provided by the organization is preventive in nature.  Each year, it provides more than one million cervical cancer screenings, 830,000 breast exams, and nearly four million exams, treatments, and tests involving sexually transmitted diseases.  The federal funding received by the organization goes strictly toward these basic needs and others, such as birth control and annual exams.  In fact, just three percent of its work is related to abortion.

Senator Kyl’s office defended this blatant lie by telling CNN “…’his remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions’.”

For people like Senator Kyl, Representative Mike Pence (R-IN), and Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN), it does not matter that Planned Parenthood provides affordable health care services for millions of women each year; in their mind that 3% makes Planned Parenthood evil.  Kyl, Pence, and Bachmann don’t care that Planned Parenthood is the only health care provider for many of these women – it’s still that 3%. 

Is this demonization of abortion rights by the far right forcing women’s advocates to make a Hobson’s choice?  In order to preserve basic health care access for women will we need to cede our open defense of abortion rights?  When we isolate abortion rights from other reproductive health care rights, we inadvertently provide anti-women extremists with the precise weapon they need to further de-legitimize abortion as health care.  Unless we are willing to fight back unapologetically for our fundamental abortion rights, those rights will indeed become meaningless for millions of women whose access to abortion rights are now under direct attack in state legislatures all across the country. 

During the Cecile Richards interview, I thought there could be a thoughtful discussion about the further de-legitimization of abortion and the onslaught of extreme anti-abortion state legislation around the country.  Instead, Richards remained steadfast in her defense of Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion related services.  The current political climate leaves anyone who is fighting for Planned Parenthood’s survival with no other choice but to downplay the abortion services.  The GOP has forced pro-choice advocates into an untenable position.  Pro-choice organizations must and do defend abortion rights.  But how does someone like Richards do that while still protecting the millions of women that seek out Planned Parenthood for vital health care services each year?  Sadly, the toxic political climate has made it next to impossible for Planned Parenthood defenders to even discuss abortion rights in any meaningful manner. 

On January 22, 2011, President Obama released a rather milquetoast statement celebrating the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.  The statement reads:

Today marks the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that protects women’s health and reproductive freedom, and affirms a fundamental principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters.  I am committed to protecting this constitutional right.  I also remain committed to policies, initiatives, and programs that help prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and mothers, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption.  And on this anniversary, I hope that we will recommit ourselves more broadly to ensuring that our daughters have the same rights, the same freedoms, and the same opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams.

When I first read the statement back in January, I wondered if perhaps I was being overly critical or too sensitive regarding the fact that nowhere in the President’s statement celebrating the legalization of abortion was the word “abortion.”  And still the President is demonized for being pro-choice, most recently in Chicago with a vulgar and overtly racist campaign targeting African American women

During that interview, I noticed that regardless of how much Maddow pressed the issue of the importance of abortion and how this fight over Planned Parenthood was being waged with abortion as the weapon Richards did not and quite frankly could not directly engage in the discussion. 

Richards is desperately waging her own war to save health care services for low-income women around the country who often use Planned Parenthood as their only source of medical care.  If Planned Parenthood is defunded then these vulnerable women that rely on their services will no longer have access to basic health care.  Those hardest hit will be women who rely on Medicaid. 

However, the fact remains that there is a war on abortion access happening in this country right now.  It is a war being waged in state legislatures taken over by anti-women, anti-choice Republicans.  We saw that same battle waged and lost during the budget showdown when the President and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to sacrifice abortion services for low-income women in D.C. in order to avert a government shutdown.  The editorial board of the New York Times called stripping D.C. residents of their right to use their own locally raised revenue for abortions services “…a cruel blow to the poor and largely African-American women who need those services.” 

The war on abortion access was highlighted by the Guttmacher Institute’s recent report titled, State Legislative Trends: Hostility to Abortion Rights Increases.  Shockingly, “[t]hrough March 31, legislators introduced 916 measures related to reproductive health and rights in the 49 state legislatures that had convened their regular session.” 

Abortion access is being severely curtailed throughout the country – not just for low-income women but for all women; even for victims of rape and incest.  In fact, some anti-abortion politicians believe women will go so far as to lie about being raped in order to receive abortion services under Medicaid.  This war on abortion in the states is becoming more extreme with each passing day.

And violence against abortion providers and clinic staffers is also increasing, thereby increasing the shortage of providers; providers who are unwilling to risk their lives and live under the constant threat of harassment and violence in order to provide abortion services. 

The Center for Reproductive Rights issued a report in 2009 titled, Defending Human Rights: Abortion Providers Facing Threats, Restrictions, and Harassment.  The report outlined the increasing shortage of providers; the intimidation and harassment at clinics; and the urgent action needed to protect abortion providers and hold perpetrators accountable for violations of federal and state laws. 

In fact, the Guttmacher Institute reports that “…the number of abortion providers nationwide has declined by 25% since the 1990s.  Currently, more than a third of women of reproductive age live in counties without an abortion provider.”

The Feminist Majority Foundation’s 2010 survey of clinic violence found “…the percentage of clinics experiencing severe violence has increased to 23.5% of all abortion providers participating in the survey in 2010, compared to 20% in 2008 and 18.5% in 2005.  Moreover, this marked the highest level of violence recorded since 1997 when 25.0% of all clinics experienced one or more incidents of severe violence.” 

Even the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is being used as a weapon against women’s reproductive rights.  Significantly, the war on abortion access for middle income women is being manifested by the surge of state legislatures using ACA to eliminate abortion coverage from insurance plans.  The National Women’s Law Center reports that currently in eleven states, “…women will not be allowed to use their own private money to purchase an exchange-based health plan that covers abortion services, and also may not be able to purchase a plan that provides insurance coverage for abortion at all.”  Furthermore,

…since ACA “…explicitly allows states to pass laws banning private insurance coverage of abortion in any exchange set up in their state,”  this problem will only get worse over time until it becomes too burdensome for any insurance carrier to offer abortion coverage.  We will eventually see all women – low-income and middle income, being deprived of basic access to abortion care services.  ACA may turn out to be the precise vehicle by which anti-choice state legislatures completely extinguish insurance coverage for abortion services in this country.

With these sustained and seemingly endless attacks on abortion access growing more venomous and pervasive every day, how can pro-choice activists continue to defend Planned Parenthood without having to subtly and sometimes not so subtly distance themselves from abortion rights? 

This is a problem that is not going away.  Anti-abortion advocates are itching for a Supreme Court fight and hoping that if one of these extreme state laws gets challenged, that the conservative Roberts court will further constrain abortion access.  And here too, pro-choice groups have so far been unwilling to fight back against the unconstitutional attacks on Roe v. Wade in states that have enacted laws directly contravening the specific rights delineated within Roe

We must remember that reproductive rights and reproductive justice includes abortion access that is fair and equitable for all women.  That means eliminating the constraints on private insurance and defeating the Hyde Amendment that discriminates against poor women.  Right now there is virtually no political will to fight for abortion access rights – but that cannot and should not stop pro-choice advocates from fighting for the constitutional rights of all women – rights that should not be defined by the amount of money in a woman’s pocket.

When we accept the Hyde Amendment, and for that matter any constraints on insurance coverage for abortion services, as our inevitable fate and political reality, then we have ceded those constitutional rights as not being rights at all anymore.  We will have turned those fundamental rights into luxuries reserved solely for women who can afford the privilege.  We will have also given pro-choice politicians the permission to portray this subversion of women’s rights as a fixed and inevitable political reality.