Friday, October 2, 2015

Planned Parenthood, Religion, Politics, and Funding Madness

There are two themes emerging from my discussions with women during this trip. The first is anger at the outrageous attacks on Planned Parenthood funding by conservatives. The second is exasperation over the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment was never passed- but I’ll deal with that in a later post.

Sara Bard Field
Courtesy, Library of Congress
I don’t know for sure what Sara Bard Field thought about abortion rights, though I suspect she would have supported women’s right to choose, and she certainly would have wanted women to have access to reproductive health care and education. She was married very young, and had been told nothing of about sex. She recalled much later that as she was headed off to her honeymoon her mother sort of awkwardly shoved a book into her hands that was supposed to enlighten her.[1] I wonder just how she was supposed to read the book before her husband demanded his marital rights. “Sorry, honey, I’m only through Chapter 2; maybe tomorrow…”

Ingeborg Kinstedt
Library of Congress
We don’t know much about what the Swedes thought, but they’d been around for a while and had seen a lot, and from Sara’s letters I’m guessing they would have been vocal supporters. Maria had been a midwife, delivering some 2000 babies in her career, and she must have helped mothers who didn’t know how they could manage one more child, or women who had babies out of wedlock. Ingeborg was much more vocal on the subject. When they were discussing illegitimacy, she said “Don’t talk to me about such foolishness. I’ve worked in institutions for the illegitimate. We knew who was the mother but in every instance—well, the Holy Ghost was the father.”[2] This pattern of women getting punished for our sexuality has been around a long time…

A few weeks ago Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert effectively blocked federal funding for the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah (PPPAU) by telling state agencies they couldn’t pass through the funds to the nonprofit. The money pays for STD testing and reporting, education around abstinence and taking responsibility for sexual activity, and a small amount of funding for pregnancy tests and STD screenings for rape victims. The funds at stake aren’t huge, a little over $215,000, but the principle is enormous, especially since Hebert specifically cited the trumped up the video released by the “Center for Medical Progress” as justification for his decision.

The PPAU is fighting back, and luckily they’ve got a new set of hands to help them out. Kate Kelly joined their staff a few weeks ago as their Strategic Policy Advisor, and she’s uniquely qualified to help lead the counterattack. She’s a Mormon feminist who was excommunicated by the church in 2014 for insisting that women should be ordained.  She also has a law degree from American University, with a focus on human rights.
Kate Kelly
The LDS church should have guessed she would be trouble. I asked her how she got started in activism and she recalled that the first protest she ever organized was at Brigham Young University, for free speech. “It was one of the first protests ever at the college,” she said with a laugh. In law school, she was involved in a lot of other causes, including the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Kate got on the track of getting women ordained in the Mormon Church when Mitt Romney was running for President in 2012. “The whole time he was running they kept talking about his Mormonism,” she said. She kept saying someone should use the opportunity to bring up the ordination of women, but no one ever did. “So I finally said, ‘I guess that’s me.” She founded Ordain Women in March 2013, and in 2014 she was excommunicated for apostasy, for demanding something that was contrary to the church’s teaching. She appealed it to the highest levels of the church, and it was upheld. That’s kind of jaw-droppingly medieval, to someone like me who wasn’t raised in a church. I guess she’s lucky, though; in another time she might have been burned at the stake…

While the experience must have been very difficult, if anything it’s made her more determined. “The Governor has violated our constitutional rights of equal protection and freedom of association,” she pointed out. The day I spoke to her, PPAU had just delivered 4,000 letters to the Governor from women demanding that the funding be restored. PPAU had also filed a lawsuit to block his order, and a judge subsequently issued a restraining order preventing it from going into effect. This round goes to PPAU!

There’s still a lot of work to be done, though. “The Mormon Church is very repressive about sex education and sexual mores,” says Kate. “But patriarchy is not just in the Mormon Church, it’s in our own country and all over the world.” She notes that whenever men are making decisions about women’s health- often behind closed doors- women will lose.

In order to succeed against the many attacks against it, Kate thinks that Planned Parenthood has to be willing to be more aggressive. “We should say ‘yes, we do abortions. They’re safe and they’re legal.’” (As is recouping costs from fetal tissue, by the way.) By focusing attention only on the fetus the conservatives have somewhat succeeded in silencing the voices of women whose lives were immeasurably benefited by not being forced to have children they didn’t want and couldn’t support.

PPAU is planning a celebration of Roe v. Wade for January, and along with that an “abortion speak-out” to encourage women who have used the procedure to say what it meant for them. “Every abortion story is also a story of a woman who’s been able to move on with her life,” says Kate. “The conservatives are really effective at rallying their base. We have to get better at rallying ours.”

In recent days there’s been some welcome positive news for Planned Parenthood, which had a pretty rough summer. In an NBC/WSJ poll released a few days ago, 61% of respondents opposed cutting its public funding- this is despite that crazy video and the braying of the Republican political candidates.

Speaking of which, Carly Fiorina, who evidently scored some points in the second debate based in part on her anti-Planned Parenthood vitriol, is now in trouble for having claimed that she personally had seen footage in the video of a fully formed, aborted fetus lying on an operating table, legs kicking, while someone talks about harvesting its brain. But as even Fox News had to acknowledge, the footage is just described by someone on the tape, it isn’t shown. So given all the other lies that have been told about this, we can reasonably conclude that the incident never occurred in the first place, it was just invented to encourage conservatives to froth at the mouth some more.  

Yesterday I was talking to a museum director about all this, and she said, “You know, somehow this [pregnancy] stuff has gotten all tangled up in politics and religion. But it’s nobody’s business but our own. Women should decide what we do with our bodies.” Well said.

The forced birthers should give up and go home. But they won’t, so we need to support Planned Parenthood with everything we’ve got; oh, and elect candidates for public office that support women’s right to safe and legal abortions.

[1] Suffragists Oral History Project, Sara Bard Field: Poet and Suffragist, conducted by Amelia R. Fry, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.
[2] Sara Bard Field to C.E.S. Wood, October 6, 1915, WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


  1. I'd always just assumed the whole pregnancy/politics thing had combined because politics remains a means to control people, especially women. Kinstedt's quote above speaks volumes.

  2. "Forced-birthers!" Never heard that before. Perfect!....Sara Bard Field was definitely in favor of family planning; after she and Erskine settled down together on their estate in Los Gatos, California, she supported the Bay Area family planning movement, though I haven't seen any indications that she devoted the time to it that she did to suffrage, the anti-war (World War I) movement, and later the women's world peace movement.