Planned Parenthood pulls a ‘Buffy’ on the Right

When “pro-life” means anti-birth control, it increases the number of unwanted pregnancies, writes Paul Rosenberg.

When “pro-life” comes out and openly means depriving millions of poor women of life-saving breast cancer exams, “we have ourselves a moment of clarity – and the world may never be the same again”, says the author [GALLO/GETTY]

San Pedro, CA – For decades, anti-choice activists have claimed they are “pro-life”, despite a demonstrable lack of concern about what happens once children are born. The US’ appalling infant and child poverty rates, along with infant and child mortality rates – all more in line with Third World nations than with other developed nations – are stark evidence of how little real substance there is to the “pro-life” claim as a political stance, and how much merit there is to the counter-claim that “pro-life” actually means anti-woman. But it’s never been a matter of reason. The shear intensity of the “pro-life” claim is enough to drown out all other thoughts… until it suddenly isn’t anymore. 

When “pro-life” means anti-birth control, thus substantially increasing the number of unwanted pregnancies, the contradictions begin to show – as they did when Mississsippians soundly defeated the “personhood” initiativelast November, which would have outlawed the most prevalent forms of birth control. But last week, things went even further. When “pro-life” comes out and openly means depriving millions of poor women of life-saving breast cancer exams, we have ourselves a moment of clarity – and the world may never be the same again.

Everywoman – US Abortion Debate

February 2 was the day that Planned Parenthood was supposed to crumble into dust. It says right there in the right-wing playbook: “Former allies turn against them, issuing denouncements in horror, disgust, outrage and dismay.” It worked perfectly a couple of years ago with ACORN, the largest low-income advocacy organisation in the United States. Why should Planned Parenthood be any different?

Why indeed? And yet, things turned out as different as night and day: February 2 was the day that the Komen Foundation – which had announced that it was defunding Planned Parenthood -crumbled instead, and it’s still not clear how deep the damage to Komen may be. Komen crumbled on tens of thousands of fronts all day long, as women – and men – who had strongly identified with its mission and work recoiled in horror, and pledged their allegiance to Planned Parenthood instead, via email, Facebook, Twitter, any way they could. By week’s end, more than $3 million had been pledged to Planned Parenthood – enough to make up for more than four years of Komen’s funding.

Komen in the spotlight

While the real damage to Komen was done by countless individual actions taken and/or spurred on via social media, the symbolic climax of Komen’s crumbling was acted out by its wealthy CEO, Nancy Brinker, in a disastrous interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

“Brinker was completely unprepared for this interview. She was placed in a situation that she seemed not to understand,” journalism professor and leading media critic, Jay Rosen wrote. “I mean this literally: Brinker did not know what she was doing there. She thought she was going on air to correct some misbegotten story line that an excitable press, the wounded executives at Planned Parenthood and ideologues in the pro-choice movement had cooked up. In her delusional state, the decision had nothing to do with the politics of abortion. Nothing! The reality was that a board member from her own organisation had told the press that it did.”

“She [Nancy Brinker] thought she was going on air to correct some misbegotten story line… the pro-choice movement had cooked up.”

– Jay Rosen, leading media critic

Further, Rosen wrote, “The fractured syntax, the thoughts that do not connect, the zombie-like performance, the whole train wreck that this interview became: I think it all originates in a lie the house bought about itself. We don’t do politics.”

But Komen is actually a very politically connected organisation – even before it took on former Secretary of State of Georgia Karen Handel, a sworn enemy of Planned Parenthood, as VP of Public Policy. (It is Handel, according to recent reports, who had been the prime mover in the latest effort to defund Planned Parenthood. Her resignation was announced Tuesday, February 7.)

Brinker and her ex-husband were deeply embedded in Texas Republican politics, where they had fundraised for George Bush. She had even gone on to serve as an ambassador for the Bush administration, and a 2002 report in Southern Exposure magazine, “Running From the Truth“, by Mary Ann Swissler, had examined in detail how Komen had acted to block Democratic, more patient-friendly version of the “Patient’s Bill of Rights”, how Komen’s relationship with the medical industrial complex shaped its policies, and how it resisted making connections between cancer and environmental causes, among other political policy dimensions. In short, Brinker was a highly connected and experienced political actor, which only made her discombobulated performance all the more striking.

And yet, if not for the tidal wave of individual activism interconnected through social media – a rising of the 99 per cent – Brinker’s delusion might still have carried the day. Instead, by that evening, Komen’s top leadership huddled on a conference call, and decided to call it quits, issuing a call to retreat the following morning – although the exact significance of their action still remains murky at best, as there is still no clear commitment to fund Planned Parenthood in the future.

Mexico high court defers abortion law to states

Actually, Brinker and Komen were incredibly lucky. Later that following day, a relatively obscure blog, milowent, called attention to her 2010 memoir, Promise Me, in which Brinker described an earlier confrontation when right-wing forces tried to get Komen to sever its ties with Planned Parenthood, and Komen refused.

The year was 2004, and the pressure came from the Curves workout centre chain, which cut off its funding when Komen refused to go along. “The grants in question supplied breast health counselling, screening and treatment to rural women, poor women, Native American women, many women of colour who were underserved – if served at all – in areas where Planned Parenthood facilities were often the only infrastructure available,” Brinker wrote in 2010. “Though it meant losing corporate money from Curves, we were not about to turn our backs on these women. Somehow this position translated to the utterly false assertion that SGK funds abortions.”

The question of what had changed between then and now would have been an extremely embarrassing question for Brinker on that day of intense crisis for Komen – and it remains so even now, as Komen still hopes to recover a measure of the trust that it has lost. Moreover, this incident’s exposure of the long-standing right-wing pressure campaign against Komen to sever its ties with Planned Parenthood would have even more dramatically altered the way the story was perceived at the time. 

Organisational destruction

Unlike their liberal counterparts, conservative activists have long prioritised the destruction of what they see as opposing organisations. Their efforts to demonise, isolate and undermine progressive organisations have been a key aspect of right-wing political organising for many decades now. (The ideology guiding them goes all the way back to the French Revolution, which right-wing conspiracy theorists blamed on the non-existent Bavarian Illuminati, a powerless discussion forum that had been disbanded for more than a decade before the French Revolution even began.)

“… and Planned Parenthood has been under repeated attack in the shadows for as long as anyone cares to remember.”

The vast majority of right-wing organisation-destroying activities take place in the shadows – and Planned Parenthood has been under repeated attack in the shadows for as long as anyone cares to remember, including efforts to defund it by the Republican House of Representatives as their first order of business in January 2011. Only a small fraction of these sorts of attacks – such as recent overt efforts to undermine public employee unions – take place in daylight out of sheer necessity.

Had more Americans been more aware of the long-term conservative game plan to demonise, isolate and undermine Planned Parenthood – and Komen, too, if it stood in their way – then Komen and those pressuring it from the right would have looked even worse than they already did.

Because I had previously covered the attacks on ACORN, and had been quite familiar with ACORN’s work before the attacks ever began, I found it impossible not to think of ACORN as these events quickly unfolded. Both ACORN and Planned Parenthood served a particularly powerless constituency – although ACORN did so much more exclusively.

Both organisations had been turned into bogeymen of the right – the targets of paranoid fact-free attacks over a period of years. Both organisations were subject to abusive, Joe McCarthy-style attacks through Congress. And both organisations had been attacked via fraudulent, secretly-taped videos attempting to portray them as enablers of commercial under-age sex-crimes, when in reality, both organizations contacted law enforcement in response to the bogus criminal activity they were presented with.

Finally, both were pawns in conservative plans to undermine the power of key Democratic constituencies without the Democrats even realising the stakes. Needless to say, I was deeply and pleasantly surprised at how differently things turned out this time around. 

When “pro-life” means anti-birth control, it substantially increases the number of unwanted pregnancies, and the contradictions will begin to show [GALLO/GETTY]

The slayer did it

But precisely because of how differently things turned out, there was yet another framework I couldn’t stop thinking of: Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. Go ahead, laugh – laughter is good for your mental health. But I’m absolutely serious, even though this might seem to be coming out of left field.

Art often illuminates complex social realities, as shown by 19th century novelists from Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad. As with novels then, so too with the best of television today. Buffy embodied five crucial points that struck me as I watched this surprising turn of events unfold. First and foremost, Buffy took the archetypal victim of the 1980s’ slasher movies and reinvented her as the unlikely destroyer of monsters and protector of others just like herself.

Given the vast financial and political resources of the professional right-wing establishment arrayed against them, what saved Planned Partenthood was not a similarly powerful political machine, but rather, the legions of once-might-have-been victims whose lives it had touched and changed forever. Individually, one still might easily mistake them for victims. On February 2, they proved decisively that they were not. What happened in real life on that day happened hundreds of times in rehearsal, as it were, throughout the life of the series.

Second, within its own fictional universe, the character Buffy differed from all previous slayers by defying orders and maintaining her non-superhero relationships. This rule-breaking refusal to relinquish the ordinary proved life-saving in multiple ways. Not least, Buffy’s friends brought her back from the dead – not just once, but twice during the series’ seven seasons.

In routine superhero fiction, superheroes save the world; in Buffy, salvation flows both ways.  And that’s exactly what we saw with Planned Parenthood: It was hundreds of thousands of “ordinary” women whose lives had been saved or significantly improved by Planned Parenthood who collectively returned the favour, and made Planned Parenthood invincible in its hour of need.

Activists seek abortion rights in Nicaragua

Third, Buffy is the story of an epic battle between good and evil that goes on right under the noses of the established authorities, who simply chose to look the other way and pretend that it’s not happening – thus enabling the powers of darkness. But those who are being victimised are well aware of what’s going on – and profoundly grateful to have someone on their side.

Fourth, Buffy has two distinct realms of moral struggle. On the one hand, there’s the life and death, good vs evil battle against vampires, demons and other inhuman forces of evil. This battle realm is morally easy – good vs evil – though physically impossibly hard. The second realm – that of everyday highschool life – is far less deadly, but much more morally difficult, usually involving competing, even conflicting goods or evils.

Of course, the two realms soon get jumbled together – it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting otherwise. But the fact that there are two entirely different sorts of moral struggle never goes away. That’s how it is for pro-choice activists as well. The battle against letting someone else control a woman’s body is entirely distinct from that woman’s struggle over what to do when facing an unwanted pregnancy of her own. It really is quite possible to be pro-choice and anti-abortion. Millions of women are.

Last, but not least, Buffy is a fighter. Conservatives never shy from a fight, but liberals are always trying to be reasonable – even when it’s a completely unreasonable thing to do. Perhaps that’s why a former conservative saw things so clearly last week. At his Balloon Juice blog, John Cole wrote:

I’ve been having a ball this week with the Komen shit-show. Not just because it was such a hideous blunder and there was so much hourly incompetence to chronicle, but because GOD DAMNED IT FEELS GOOD TO BE ON THE OFFENSIVE.

Say what you will about all the wingnutty things I said 2001-2005ish, at least I was looking for a fight with the opposition party and going after them. Since I became a Democrat, it seems like the only time we ever get our damned dander up is with other Democrats…

This time, though, was different. It was nice to watch everyone go for blood, and sink their teeth in and get some. That’s what we need in the Democratic Party. We need a killer instinct. We need to stop putting up with this bullshit from these crazy people… We don’t have to stoop to lies and innuendo, we can go after them with the truth, just like we did this time.

They are lying about tax and regulatory burdens. They are lying about social security. They are lying about Obamacare and Medicare and Medicaid. They are lying about the environment and global warming. They are lying about poor people and black people and gay people and immigrants. They are lying about Obama. They are lying about everything.

There is nothing noble or wise about trying to have rational arguments, or acting like the mature people when you are dealing with fanatics. This stuff is important. You should be pissed off and fighting mad…

The ACORN contrast

Those five points together hit the highlights of how things appeared to me on February 2 and 3.  But I also wanted to know how they looked to someone who’d been on the inside of ACORN when they were under similar attack. So I called up Nathan Henderson-Jones, who had been head of ACORN’s online organising when I first interviewed him. 

For decades, anti-choice activists have claimed they are “pro-life”, despite a demonstrable lack of concern about what happens once children are born [GALLO/GETTY]

In 2008 and 2009, the main focus of right-wing attacks on ACORN centered around its work on two fronts: first, its role in registering more than a million low-income voters in key states around the country in the previous decade; second, its role in advising low-income families in becoming homeowners over a similar period of time.

Conservatives claimed that the first was evidence of ACORN’s involvement in massive voter fraud. The only problem was, there’s absolutely zero evidence that massive voter fraud exists in the US today. Indeed, there’s zero evidence of any organised voter fraud at all. Conservative fears about voter fraud are simply a cover story to justify laws making it harder for minorities and other Democratic-leaning voter groups to exercise their right to vote.

The second claim was largely driven by McCain’s guilty conscience. In 2006, he had spoken at an ACORN immigration rally, praising them from the podium – a real problem that ACORN highlighted as McCain tried to demonise them as a way of attacking Obama. In response, McCain doubled down, and released a campaign attack ad, saying, “ACORN forced banks to issue risky home loans, the same types of loans that caused the financial crisis we’re in today.”

But actually, ACORN’s record was exactly the opposite of what McCain claimed: they had been vigorously active in defending low-income homebuyers from predatory lending and other practices financial institutions used to take advantage of them. On October 17, ACORN released a report, “ACORN and John McCain: The Real Story of the Financial Crisis 1999-2008“, which included this chart “ACORN: A Decade of Fighting on the Frontlines” summarising everything ACORN had done.

Although the media remained heavily biased against ACORN, dutifully repeating discredited right-wing attacks on them over and over again, the impact on ACORN was minimal, until the summer of 2009, when two young conservative activists – James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles -purportedly posing as a pimp and prostitute, but actually passing as a prostitute and her boyfriend, attempted to lure ACORN workers in multiple states into offering them assistance in illegal activities.

“After highly-edited tapes were released to the media and on YouTube, Congress moved quickly to cut off funding, not even bothering with the formalities of a hearing.”

After highly-edited tapes were released to the media and on YouTube, Congress moved quickly to cut off funding, not even bothering with the formalities of a hearing. Subsequent investigations showed that the videos were highly deceptive. A report from California’s Attorney General Office found that tapes shot at four California ACORN offices had been “severely edited”, that there was no evidence of criminal conduct by ACORN employees, and that three employees tried to derail the couple’s plans.

A fourth employee, who appeared to aid O’Keefe had actually reported his interactions to a Mexican police detective in order to thwart their plan. In short, the entire project was riddled with deception and fraud, yet it was good enough to get Congress – controlled by Democrats at the time – to act rashly and sufficiently damage ACORN’s reputation that the organisation eventually disbanded.

Planned Parenthood

At the time, Henderson-James told me that ACORN had left itself vulnerable to attack, let its guard down, and failed to respond quickly and effectively. “ACORN itself did not do a good job of responding to these things and we did not do a good job of understanding the position we were in, in the first place after a year of attacks,” he said.

“We had a lot of things on our plate” and worrying about a sex-based sting on under-trained staff was not one of them. He also said that the ease with which ACORN was defunded “really points out how the progressive movement is not a movement. It is a bunch of people who share a political vision for the US, but do it from the feet of several independent organisations that do not have an infrastructure that allows them to communicate quickly with each other, and create ways so that they can function much more as if they were part of a unified movement.”

Returning to him now, almost two-and-a-half years later, I asked him what he thought accounted for the very different ways in which the attacks on the two organisations played out. (Planned Parenthood, incidentally, has already been through similar, but far less successful video sting attacks, one of them involving O’Keefe prior to his ACORN escapade, and a second one which it very publicly responded to by calling in the FBI.

Everywoman – Global Gag Rule and Comfort Women

Henderson-James shared two different perspectives in his comments to me, reflecting views from people he’d been in contact with, discussing the story as it unfolded. “For folks where were intimately involved with it [ACORN] on the inside, some of us were impressed and perhaps a bit jealous of the way that Planned Parenthood was able to take this attack and turn it into $3 million and a whole bunch of goodwill from allies who went to bat on its behalf, in addition to whatever else it was doing for them.”

He also described “another set of reactions, mostly for those who were on the outside of the ACORN fight”. For this second group, “Their reaction was this is an example of folks learning from what happened to ACORN, Planned Parenthood being ready to deal with the attacks.” This involved a number of different dimensions, including “crisis communications, fundraising aps, mobilising allies and political cover, as well as the larger [activist] community – women’s rights, feminists, progressives”.

I went on to ask about the differences in the constituencies the two organisations served. “To the extent that Planned Parenthood’s constituency extends far beyond the most disenfranchised women, it makes it easier to reach that constituency and mobilise that constituency… to defend themselves from attack, and to mobilise them and go on the offensive,” he said. 

But, “having said that… Planned Parenthood did the hard work of building those networks in the first place. ACORN itself was very reliant on its membership base, which was mostly disenfranchised folks. But it did not do a very good job of reaching out beyond that membership base to build the type of relationships that Planned Parenthood has been able to draw on.”

Two other factors appeared significant to me. First was the peculiar nature of the political moment when the ACORN firestorm broke. At the time, congressional Democrats were intently focused on healthcare legislation, but they were also deeply on the defensive psychologically, following a full month of Tea Party assaults at town hall meetings during August.

Progressive activists of all stripes were feeling particularly disempowered as Congressional Democrats had spent months on end rejecting progressive priorities like single-payer, or at least the public option, engaged in fruitless attempted compromises with conservatives, only to make themselves into punching bags for a fantasy-based movement of petty thugs intent on shouting them down. It was the worst of all possible times for an organisational attack to take place.

In contrast, Planned Parenthood was favoured overwhelmingly by how dramatically things had changed since then, as epitomised by Arab Spring, the way social media’s impact has exploded, and how that has translated into the rise of the Occupy movement, and the sense of mass empowerment of the 99 per cent.

Make no mistake: we are in the midst of a time of enormous flux, and no one can say how long it will last or where it will lead to. But a time of flux is a time of possibilities, a time of empowerment, of imagination and yes, even magic. Which is the sixth and final reason that Planned Parenthood’s resounding triumph still makes the most sense to me in terms of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. The tide has turned… but it’s still up to us which way it will ultimately flow.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.