Anti-Choicers Are Trying to Convince Us That Reproductive Care Isn’t a Legitimate Need—and the Media Is Helping

Two of the major anti-Planned Parenthood talking points, which anti-choicers have disseminated through mainstream media, are about advancing the idea that any sexual health services that aren't about making babies doesn't count as real health care.

Two of the major anti-Planned Parenthood talking points, which anti-choicers have disseminated through mainstream media, are about advancing the idea that any sexual health services that aren't about making babies doesn't count as real health care. Shutterstock

This summer, the anti-choice movement clearly had one goal: to see how far it could get in using lies and deceptive rhetoric to convince America that reproductive health care, particularly the service offered by Planned Parenthood, isn’t a real medical need.

This was all kicked off with a lie that got a surprising amount of traction for being a self-evident right-wing fantasy—that Planned Parenthood is somehow profiting off selling fetal body parts. Still, using that deception to try and snooker people into believing reproductive services aren’t legitimate is an enormous undertaking. Nearly all women, including religious conservatives themselves, use the kinds of health care in question: contraception, cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment, well-woman visits, you name it. Women know for a fact that these things are, indeed, health care. So anti-choicers have concocted a number of lies and confusing rhetorical ploys to try and overcome this well-established fact. And unfortunately, they’ve had some assistance from mainstream media outlets, which too often hesitate to correct right-wing misinformation out of fear of being accused of bias.

Conservative efforts to call into question the necessity of reproductive health care have taken two forms: Deny that there’s any reason women would need access to specialized gynecological care and imply that any gynecological care that is not prenatal care must therefore be “abortion.” (Obviously, abortion is also legitimate health care, but anti-choicers have been denying that for a long time. This is about everything that is not abortion.)

The first point is largely being accomplished by arguing that women don’t need Planned Parenthood because they can go to a “community health center.” In order to bolster this claim, the Susan B. Anthony List is circulating a map of these centers where women can go for alternative health care, a talking point that many legislators have brought up as well.

Unsurprisingly, it all turns out to be utter nonsense. Community health centers are often already overworked and dumping a bunch of patients seeking gynecological care on them will mean less care for everyone. Jennifer Frost and Kinsey Hasstedt of the Guttmacher Institute dug into this claim even more deeply and found that when it comes to contraception in particular, there is simply no replacing Planned Parenthood:

In 68 percent of counties with a Planned Parenthood site (332 counties out of 491), these sites serve at least half the women obtaining publicly supported contraceptive services from a safety-net health center. And in 21 percent of counties with a Planned Parenthood site (103 counties), Planned Parenthood serves all of the women obtaining publicly supported contraceptive services from a safety-net health center.

Others have pointed out before that defunding Planned Parenthood results in a surge of unintended pregnancies due to unmet contraception needs, and were met with indifferent shrugs by anti-choicers.

It’s clear that anti-choicers aren’t circulating this map of “alternative” clinics—clinics that are usually good clinics, but are often overtaxed and not equipped for the levels of specialized care Planned Parenthood can offer—because they truly want women to get contraception somewhere else. They know women likely won’t be able to. So circulating the map is about creating the facile appearance of concern while actually implying that there’s no need for widespread specialized gynecological care at all: that services meant to allow women to have sex safely without getting pregnant should not be considered health care in the first place.

This is made even more evident by talking point number two: the claim, floated again by the SBA List, that 94 percent of “pregnancy-related” services at Planned Parenthood are abortion. Imani Gandy of Rewire thoroughly debunked this claim, and I recommend reading her takedown in its entirety. In addition to her analysis, what should jump out at you is the hidden premise that SBA List is floating with that statistic, which is that the only legitimate gynecological care for women is “pregnancy-related.” Cancer screenings, STI treatment, well-woman visits, pregnancy prevention, even just treatment for anemia? (Which is one of the things Planned Parenthood treated me for in college.) All of that is considered so unimportant that SBA List couldn’t even bother to take it into consideration. If a woman isn’t currently gestating, she apparently doesn’t even rate as a person deserving health care. Women are treated, openly, like nothing but baby buckets. If you aren’t pregnant, your care doesn’t matter enough to even be counted.

Unfortunately, the Washington Post’s response to this number was to run a “both sides do it” story debunking the SBA List’s statistical methods, but also arguing that Planned Parenthood was somehow underestimating their abortion services with their standard claim that it’s only 3 percent of what they do. (Gandy challenged the Post’s rebuttal, as well.) It’s a lot of fun with numbers, but what goes unquestioned is the extremely different assumptions bundled with each statistic. By pointing out that abortion is only 3 percent of their services, Planned Parenthood is trying to argue that their preventive services—contraception, STI testing, you know the drill—are legitimate forms of health care. By focusing strictly on abortion, prenatal care, and “adoption referrals,” SBA List is suggesting that non-pregnant women have no legitimate interest in sexual health care. It’s not a story of both sides “fudging the numbers” at all; it’s a very strong difference in opinion over whether the woman who surrounds the uterus is a person with any value beyond making babies.

This kind of false equivalence was also all over a recent episode of the Diane Rehm show, which aimed to broadly cover the various attacks on Planned Parenthood. The episode had anti- and pro-choice voices, but little effort was actually made to weigh the claims of either side against facts. New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes did point out, briefly, that the SBA List’s 94 percent number blatantly ignores the fact that women have sexual health-care needs even when not pregnant, but beyond that, the anti-choice voice, Carol Tobias, was able to push her myths hard without much fear of Rehm pointing out that she was, by an objective and truth-based standard, being deceptive.

For instance, Tobias claimed “the money that would have gone to Planned Parenthood would go to other health service centers that would provide the same care.” But she then went on to argue, “We have thousands of pregnancy centers all over this country who will help women with the pregnancy, with whatever services she needs.” She is almost certainly talking about crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), almost none of which are actual clinics. Most CPCs don’t offer any useful services at all, but simply provide a pregnancy test you could buy at the drugstore and a lecture about how abortion and birth control are evil.

Unfortunately, none of the journalists on the show pointed out that a pamphlet telling you to abstain from sex is not an adequate replacement for actual medical care provided by actual doctors and nurses. Because of this, listeners who don’t know much about the issue might actually walk away thinking there’s nothing Planned Parenthood offers that women can’t readily get elsewhere. Imagine if Tobias was challenged on her nonsense! She might admit to believing that she disapproves of health care for women who want to have sex without getting pregnant. She might admit that she was just trying to bamboozle people by implying that a CPC is anything like an actual medical clinic. Members of the public might have learned that anti-choice activists have an ugly anti-sex agenda way outside of mainstream views. Instead, she went unchallenged, and listeners likely walked away incorrectly believing that these attacks on Planned Parenthood don’t represent the threat to reproductive health care that they actually do.

It’s hard challenging anti-choices lies and anti-choice radicalism. Anti-choicers whine and they fuss about being held accountable to even basic truths, much less being challenged on their values assertions. They lie so often that it’s exhausting just trying to keep up with it all. But audiences deserve to know what’s really going on with this debate over Planned Parenthood, and serving their interests—and serving the truth—means abandoning this attachment to narratives that treat both sides as equivalent, and equally factual, points of view.