Tomorrow, Mississippi voters will weigh in on Initiative 26, otherwise known as the Personhood Amendment, otherwise known as the Most Ill Thought Out Piece Of Terrible Legislation Of All Time, 2011 Entrant. Colorado, Ohio, and Florida are also trying their hands at a game of Uterine Roulette with severely abortion-restricting legislation of their own. While it may seem like the current assault on women's health and reproductive services is unprecedented, a new profile of Planned Parenthood reveals that women's health and access to birth control has always been used as a political punching bag.
A piece in this week's issue of The New Yorker (full text available to subscribers) outlines the history of Planned Parenthood in the US and showcases how, when it comes to birth control and lawmakers' opinions on whether or not we should have it, it's always something.
When Margaret Sanger first founded Planned Parenthood, it wasn't called Planned Parenthood; it was called the Birth Control League. And before it was the Birth Control League, it was just a rogue clinic in New York City that held itself out to poor women who wanted to control how many children they had.
Unfortunately, in World War I era America, birth control was such an outlandishly forward thinking concept that it was not only illegal, but considered obscene. In fact, distributing information on birth control violated obscenity laws and landed Sanger in handcuffs in 1916. Jill Lepore reports,
At Sanger's trial, during which a judge waved a cervical cap from the bench, Sanger hoped to argue that the law preventing the distribution of contraception was unconstitutional: exposing women, against their will, to the dangers of dying in childbirth violated a woman's right to life. But the judge ruled that no woman had "the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception. In other words, if a woman wasn't willing to die during childbirth, she shouldn't have sex.
Plus, if a woman had access to birth control, she'd obviously go crazy with doing sex to all of the men, everywhere, in the whole world. Women shouldn't have that sort of freedom to enjoy themselves and not be pregnant all the time! How absurd!
Depressingly, that line of thinking doesn't sound too far from the line of thinking at the root of the "personhood" debate today, which makes sense when you consider the fact that contraception continued to be illegal until 1937, which means that John McCain and 12 other current US Senators were born when it was illegal for a woman to obtain a diaphragm.
During the 1960's, Sanger's mantle was taken up by civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, who advised Planned Parenthood's then-President Alan Guttmacher to refer to birth control as the less harsh sounding "family planning." In the 1970's, Phylis Schlafly fought with all her unholy bat-given strength to helmet hair America out of passing the Equal Rights Amendment. Her efforts gave birth to the anti-choice, anti-equality wing of the conservative American politics still seen as viable today, and so it's kind of funny, actually, that the Susan B. Anthony foundation hearkens to a woman whose political efforts culminated in winning women the right to vote in 1920 rather than the actual grandmother of the movement, who Lapore points out is Phylis Schlafly.
Post-Roe, political strategists seized upon the issue of abortion as a way to further politically divide Americans and motivate the Christian right to vote Republican. In the 1990's, there were abortion clinic bombers. And last year, when states were trying to defund the organization left and right, Planned Parenthood gained a million new financial supporters. The organization has proven that it is resilient because the social need it addresses is resilient— no matter how deep a trench we attempt to dig back to the Dark Ages, there will still be women who want to use existing medical technology to control their fates.
Planned Parenthood is gearing up for an election year that will undoubtedly bring what's going on in and around your vagina to the lips of the mostly post-fertile men who make this country's political decisions. The organization is launching its election year campaign tomorrow. Called "Women are Watching," it will emphasize women's role in voting and remind political candidates that their efforts to act like women's health is a bargaining chip will not go unnoticed.
Let's hope enough of us notice to convince sound byte mongering political gum-bumpers to cut the thinly veiled sexual moralizing and focus on governing. Our very right to pursue happiness is at stake.
The Politics of Planned Parenthood and Women's Rights [The New Yorker]