Planned Parenthood: the medical provider we need, not the one we want?

Trigger Warning: eugenics, abortion, racism, sexism, cissexism

The US Senate is scheduled to vote on Planned Parenthood’s funding today. In light of the recent videos released by David Daleiden and other anti-abortion activists, what that vote has focused on are some of the outcomes for services that only account for three percent of Planned Parenthood’s budget. In cases of abortion where adequate fetal stem cells (which medical researchers can use to treat and understand certain illnesses and disabilities) can be taken from aborted fetuses, Planned Parenthood asks if patients are comfortable donating those tissues that would otherwise be disposed of as either medical waste, mourned and buried, or otherwise not used for medical purposes.

In the grand scheme of modern medicine, this isn’t a radical break from much of anything. Organ donor stamps have become an unremarkable sight to see on driver’s licenses, and one of the places those tissues and organs end up is ultimately in the hands of researchers – whose own websites make it quite clear they will reimburse the people doing the difficult work of removing and safely transporting various organs and tissues. The payment involved in Planned Parenthood’s “sale” of fetal tissues is more or less the same, a coverage for the work involved, to maintain a system that makes sure the donated tissues are, well, actually usable to the researchers who receive them.

The moral outrage and demand for reform seems tied to the actual specifics of what tissue is being taken and which organization is doing it. From that oddly unique criticism of Planned Parenthood, a whole host of shifting, chimeric complaints has emerged in the past few weeks. Chief among those are the implications that Planned Parenthood is essentially a eugenic enterprise, seeking to curb if not undermine the reproductive freedoms of people of color and particularly Black people. Sarah Palin has been among the most vocal advocates of that line of criticism, which she has in her classic style muddied into the also on-going debate over confederate imagery. Last Sunday, she put up an image on Facebook contrasting the Confederate Battle Flag and Planned Parenthood’s logo, which asked “Which symbol killed 90,000 Black babies last year?”

Among the problems with that question is the fact that you could argue Planned Parenthood is drastically underserving Black communities and other communities of color in the United States. How many deaths in those communities has Planned Parenthood prevented, and how many more could it be preventing? The majority of its budget and services go to providing help in ways other than providing abortions, and while a large chunk of that is contraceptive in nature a large amount involves perinatal care. As a key source of medical care for low income people, there’s a valid question to be asked if Planned Parenthood and medical centers capable of offering an abortion if needed are inadequately available in majority Black neighborhoods. Only six percent of them nationally are in those types of areas.

There is a worrisome discussion to be had about those types of medical providers admittedly, given that more abortion-heavy clinics (which provide 400 or more abortions in a given year) are slightly less unusual to see in majority Black and Latin@ neighborhoods. Black academics in particular have been promoting an open analysis of that for decades now, with one of the most topical being Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. She lays out quite explicitly the needs of cisgender Black women in the US when it comes to reproductive freedom in the introduction, saying

“The story I tell about reproductive rights differs dramatically from the standard one. In contrast to the account of American women’s increasing control over their reproductive decisions, centered on the right to an abortion, this book describes a long experience of dehumanizing attempts to control Black women’s reproductive lives. The systematic, institutionalized denial of reproductive freedom has uniquely marked Black women’s history in America. Considering this history – from slave masters’ economic stake in bonded women’s fertility to the racist strains of early birth control policy to sterilization abuse of Black women during the 1960s and 1970s to the current campaign to inject Norplant and Depo-Provera in the arms of Black teenagers and welfare mothers – paints a powerful picture of the link between race and reproductive freedom in America.”

From there, she immediately transitions into discussing how underserved Black cisgender women were by the denial of access to abortion in public hospitals following Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. The Black community, to say nothing of the various communities of color in the United States, is not a monolith, but when describing the intersections of race and reproductive freedom, their tendency has been to emphasize the need for freedom from coercion, for bodily autonomy, and for economic security. Those goals then underpin what policies should be pursued. In light of that, Planned Parenthood and similar organizations – capable of providing abortion but focused on more generally giving low cost high quality medical care – are perhaps exactly what those communities need, as an alternative to the current alternatives of inconsistent, low quality, overly abortion-focused types of care or worse no care at all.

planned parenthood health care happens hereProtesters in Oregon on July 28, 2015, from here.

That’s possibly the key misunderstanding that continues to crop up in these discussions. Planned Parenthood is a medical provider. Like other medical providers in similar contexts, they pay people to transport donated tissues and organs. Like other medical providers in our privatized medical care system, they generally do not provide enough care or the right kind of care in low income neighborhoods and to communities of color. Almost all of these criticisms of Planned Parenthood ultimately lead back to a criticism of medical care in general, and the need for it to be administered more carefully and compassionately. From a reformist mindset, Planned Parenthood is hardly perfect, but seems committed to improving itself and improving the world.

But that’s quite clearly not where the current complaints are coming from. The desperate search for a problem to have with Planned Parenthood shows that there are issues with all medical services that can induce discomfort and concern for many if not most people. The use of that, however, is just against Planned Parenthood, or perhaps abortion providers in general. What’s developing here is yet another way of codedly confronting the issues that abortion stirs up in a way that won’t openly process where those come from and what drives them, and what’s more will obscure the concerns and problems around other issues dragged into it as justification fodder. We’re having a national anti-conversation on abortion, in which everyone walks away from it more unclear over what’s at stake.

But that’s the anti-conversation the US Senate would like to have, going by the eighteen Senators now threatening a government shutdown unless and until Planned Parenthood is defunded in full. The Center for Reproductive Rights has begun circulating a petition to convince them that not only is this unproductive, but also wildly unpopular, which might be the only way of convincing them to stop.

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