Blog for Choice 2013: Roe at 40 and the Rebranding of Planned Parenthood

Blog for Choice 2013: Roe at 40 and the Rebranding of Planned Parenthood

Today is NARAL’s annual Blog for Choice day, which falls this year on the 40th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. One this day, NARAL invites bloggers and activists to get people to talk about reproductive rights online. By participating in Blog for Choice day, we join NARAL’s mission to “let readers and the mainstream media know that a woman’s right to choose is a core progressive value that must be protected.”

NARAL’s deliberate decision to retain the word “choice” is quite a contrast to Planned Parenthood’s commemoration of  Roe’s 40th anniversary. In advance of this event, Planned Parenthood launched a new campaign, Not in Her Shoes which seeks to move beyond labels in the abortion debate:

Here’s the transcript:
Most things in life aren’t simple. And that includes abortion.

It’s personal. It can be complicated. And for many people, it’s NOT a black and white issue.

So why do people try to label it like it is? Pro-choice? Pro-life? The truth is these labels limit the conversation and simply don’t reflect how people actually feel about abortion.

A majority of Americans believe abortion should remain safe and legal. Many just don’t use the words pro-choice. They don’t necessarily identify as pro-life either. Truth is, they just don’t want to be labeled.

What they want is for a woman to have access to safe and legal abortion, if and when she needs it.

But when it comes to abortion, who decides?

Her congressman? Her governor? Her president?

Women don’t turn to politicians for advice about mammograms, prenatal care, or cancer treatments. And they shouldn’t. Politicians don’t belong in a woman’s personal medical decisions about her pregnancy.

When it comes down to it, we just don’t know a woman’s specific situation. We’re not in her shoes.

Ultimately, decisions about whether to choose adoption, end a pregnancy, or raise a child must be left to a woman, her family, and her faith, with the counsel of her doctor or health care provider.

So the next time you talk about abortion, don’t let the labels box you in.

Have a different conversation.

A conversation that doesn’t divide you, but is based on mutual respect and empathy.

To learn more, go to notinhershoes.org.

The National Women’s Law Center, as part of their This Is Personal project, has launched a Tumblr  Not In Her Shoes, where women (and men!) are encouraged to submit pictures of their shoes and “tell us why no one can walk in them but you.”

Planned Parenthood’s decision to go beyond labels comes in response to new polls showing  that Americans are dissatisfied with the labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice”. “I’m neither pro-choice nor pro-life,” said one woman in a focus group commissioned by Planned Parenthood. “I’m pro-whatever-the-situation is.” Said another, “there should be three: pro-life, pro-choice and something in the middle that helps people understand circumstances […] It’s not just back or white, there’s grey.”

This sounds familiar — it’s just like those young women (and men) I see in my classes who say “I’m not feminist, but I want women to have the same rights as men.”  As Amanda Marcotte observes, The correct term for people who want abortion to be decided on a case-by-case basis is pro-choice. . . Pro-choice has its drawbacks, but at least it’s accurate.”

It appears that Planned Parenthood is returning to its centrist past.  The organization was a relative late-comer to the pro-choice movement and during the 1960s tended to dissociate itself from controversial issues such as the rights of unmarried persons to contraception and abortion. Remember  Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) decision did not give universal access to contraceptives to all women.  The court clearly stated that Connecticut state law unfairly intruded on the right to marital privacy: it said nothing about those who were not married.  Rather than ushering in the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, Griswold was really an extension of the domestic ideal of the 1950s.  Planned Parenthood’s main objective at the time was to shore up heterosexual marriages by allowing couples to have healthy sex lives without fear of frequent, unwanted childbearing.

Bill Baird

Today Planned Parenthood considers the U.S. Supreme Court cases Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which extended the right to privacy in regards to contraception to unmarried persons; and Belotti v. Baird (1976), which struck down a strict Massachusetts parental consent laws for minors seeking abortions, to be watersheds in the history of reproductive rights. However, at the time these cases were being tried, Planned Parenthood deliberately turned their backs on defendant Bill Baird (above).

In a 1967 interview with the Harvard Crimson, Planned Parenthood officials explained why they were unwilling to help Baird. Stephen J. Plank, assistant professor of population studies and president of the state chapter of Planned Parenthood said they would offer support “if we thought Baird had a better chance to win his point. It doesn’t make sense to violate our charter to support such a risky case as his, though.”

Baird recalls on his Facebook page, few people know that “Eisenstadt v. Baird case has been recognized by legal scholars as the foundation for the right to abortion in the Roe case.” Fewer still know that “it was students, 800 strong, who signed petitions asking me to go from my clinic in New York to challenge the almost one-hundred year old law (“Crimes Against Chastity”), which carried a 10-year prison sentence for my speech to 2,500 students at Boston University (April 6, 1967). My “crime” was daring to exhibit birth control and abortion devices (5 years punishment) and giving a contraceptive foam and condom to a 19-year-old female (another 5 years punishment). . . had I lost my case to legalize birth control, and it would have remained a crime, there would not have been a legal foundation for Roe v. Wade,” since unlike Griswold v. Connecticut, Baird’s case dealt specifically with the right to privacy for unmarried individuals.

I can understand why Planned Parenthood wants to bring as many people as possible on board.  However, I think there’s another way to broaden the movement without being so wishy-washy.  In her cover story from TIME magazine, “What Choice?, Kate Pickert  describes a cohort of young abortion rights activists who want  to “modernize the cause” and create an agenda that is “broader and more diffuse.” These activists have embraced the cause of “reproductive justice” that “addresses abortion access but also contraception, child care, gay rights, health insurance, and economic opportunity.”

Loretta Ross The Laura Flanders Show 2017. (Wikimedia)

The term “reproductive justice” was first proposed by feminist health activists of color in the 1990s. Organizations such as the National Black Women’s Health Project and the SisterSong Collective argued that the language of individual choice favored by many white, middle-class activists overlooks factors such as racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and poverty that constrain women’s ability to make meaningful choices. In the TIME cover story, SisterSong founder Loretta Ross (right) says that reproductive justice represented a “natural maturation” of the prochoice movement of the 1970s that focused solely on choice as an end in itself and overlooked other causes that drove high rates of unintended pregnancy in communities of color.   Ross says that “if people are not convinced that they have real economic and educational opportunities, you could put a clinic in a girl’s bedroom and she would still think early motherhood is a better choice.”

Proud to Be Pro-choice. (Two Branches/Flickr)

I hope this concept of reproductive justice catches on.  Let’s be proud of our past. Like “postfeminism” the “post-label” strategy of “Not in Her Shoes” campaign reinforces a neoliberal model of individual choice that ignores the cultural, social and economic context in which we all live.  To paraphrase a slogan from the Women’s Liberation Movement, the personal still is political and always will be.

Featured image caption: NARAL’s blog for choice 2013.

Heather Munro Prescott is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. She is the author of The Morning-After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.