Planned Parenthood – Why it’s about Women, Class and Race

Planned Parenthood , a non-profit organization and the largest provider of reproductive health services in the United States, was at the centre of a storm when a leading breast-cancer charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation announced that they had decided to stop their partnership with Planned Parenthood . Before we discuss the more controversial part of the debate, a few things first - Komen’s grant funding of about $700, 000 is for breast screenings, to protect women from breast cancer. Komen itself is no stranger to controversies. "Pro-life" right-wing activists in the US had managed to pressurize Komen to remove their funding for an initiative that provides sexual and reproductive healthcare services to women and men in US and around the world. It did not matter that this particular funding for Planned Parenthood was for breast screening! Pro-life activists had equated Planned Parenthood to abortion. They had forgotten to take a look at Planned Parenthood’s Annual Report for 2010, which shows that abortion services constituted a mere 3% of their services.

So, what is the logic of equating cancer treatment with abortion? Surely, the math does not sound right. Within three days of the announcement from Komen, Planned Parenthood received donations equivalent to Komen’s grant funding, from the public. People had spoken. Responding to the huge public backlash and protest resignations from their own employees, Komen reversed their decision within a week.

The Debate around Birth Control and Abortion

The purpose of this article however, is to go back to the debate. Even when Komen’s funding was for breast cancer, the issue was not breast cancer. Even when Planned Parenthood has a much larger mandate, this article would not be complete, without touching upon abortion rights and birth control. The issue being debated is whether every woman has the “right to choose when or whether to have a child, and that every child should be wanted and loved” and that was being denied. Before pro-life activists call me a “murderer” who wants to “kill” babies, let me also quote this from an article in Slate

If you want to drive Planned Parenthood out of the abortion business, don’t send them less money. Send them more. Help Planned Parenthood become what it has wanted to be all along: The organization that helps women avoid unwanted pregnancies, so they don’t have to abort them.

That is, if only birth control was more accessible, lesser number of women would need to abort. The point I am making is this. Women do not have fun, aborting their babies. For most women, it is one of the most painful decisions of their lives. Therefore, using the guilt wand against women is just cruel and unfair. Of course, I hope we will not debate for reasons such as rape, incest and physical safety of the mother or child.

Besides women, who “choose” to abort, teenagers form a big part of the story. In 2006, there were 41.9 births per 1000 teenagers and 19.3 abortions per 1000 teenagers. So, when pro-life activists fight for the life of a child, obviously, they are forgetting the child who is carrying the fetus! The reason I combine abortion and birth control access in this article, is because it is like that. Women and men should have access to birth control. Even today, schools in the US conduct sex education based only on the philosophy of abstinence, without providing information on birth control. If our children dont have access to information, are we going to depend on porn to educate our children on sex?

Having said that, I know that there are many parents who are not yet comfortable with the idea of their teenage children engaging in casual sex. For those, I quote Barack Obama from his book, Audacity of Hope, "I want young people to show more reverence towards sex and intimacy, and I applaud parents, congregations and community programs that transmit that message. But I am not willing to consign a teenage girl to a life time of struggle because of lack of access to birth control."

Why Planned Parenthood is about Class, Race and Gender

Whenever the Planned Parenthood debate ends with the issue of abortion and birth control, we are actually getting fooled. This debate is much larger. Abortion is legal in the United States. The US Supreme Court recognized that a woman had the right to choose whether to terminate her pregnancy. This was the landmark decision of Roe vs Wade . No one can deny a woman, her right to abort. So, whose abortion rights are we actually “debating” here?

This debate around Planned Parenthood is not about de-legitimizing abortion.The debate is about using the tax payer’s money to fund her abortion. What the pro-life activists are actually saying is this – if you are rich, you can most certainly abort, but if you are poor, you really don’t have a choice. Image courtesy: clockworknate/Flickr

Of course! The poor woman’s right to abort. This debate around Planned Parenthood is not about de-legitimizing abortion. Nobody can. It is legal. The debate is about using the tax payer’s money to fund her abortion. What the pro-life activists are actually saying is this – if you are rich, you can most certainly abort, but if you are poor, you really don’t have a choice. After making healthcare as costly as it is today, the poor woman would be pushed to severe despair, if she does not have access to contraceptives and reproductive health care. Yes, including abortion services.

United States is not new to this trend. Fraser and Gordon’s (1994) paper throws light on how “dependency” came to be seen as a bad word in United States. Fraser argues that welfare dependency evokes the picture of an individual, usually a black woman or teenager, who is in poverty with child care responsibilities. With this image, she argues, dependency is seen as an individual problem rather than a social issue. The Protestant work ethic of discipline and labor started pointing fingers at anyone who needed welfare. The poor were poor because they were lazy and because they deserved to be poor. Stigmatizing welfare and those who depended on welfare became the winning strategy of the individualistic American. And it always worked in capitalist America.

In 2004, the abortion rate was 11 per 1000 for non-Hispanic white women, 28 per 1000 for Hispanic women and 50 per 1000 for Black women. The black woman, most definitely had brought this upon herself. Crenshaw (1991) wrote about how the sexualized image of the black woman was often the excuse for discrediting her needs. The tendency to portray black women as sexually deviant is yet another tool to worsen her condition. I quote Fraser (1994:327), “By the 1970s the figure of the black solo mother had come to epitomize welfare dependency.” Brubaker’s (2007) study on African American teen mothers shows how such negative stereotypes made these teenagers ignorant about sexuality and pregnancy, and further made birth control inaccessible. The pressure to be a “good girl” meant that they would not even disclose their pregnancy or talk about birth control. Well, if Planned Parenthood is not about race, what is?

Very often, women are termed as “selfish”, “insensitive” and “ambitious” for even thinking about abortion. I would urge those who say these things, to stop for a moment, to think why women have to choose abortion or birth control. Behind the argument of why many women and their children will be thrown to poverty, one cannot miss the patriarchy in this equation. A pregnancy is the consequence of a sexual act in which two people were involved. In an ideal world, where all is equal and nice, the beautiful child born out of this beautiful act should be the “equal” responsibility of both the man and the woman. But hell, no! We don’t live in that dream world. In our world, housework and child care responsibilities continues to be the primary responsibility of the woman. The single mother is often single, not by choice, but by situation. As long as society does not think that men are equally responsible for the welfare of a child, it is better to refrain from telling women what they should do with their uterus.

Planned Parenthood and India

In our globalized world social issues in one place is sometimes used to push an agenda. A favorite retort to abortion rights from pro-life activists in India is to refer to sex determination and female infanticide in India. I’m sorry. But, abortion rights is not equal to sex determination. Selective abortion based on sex of the child is against the law. Like all complexities in life, it might be difficult to understand for those who pay the poor to make more children , so that their religion can have more followers. Brinda Karat demonstrates the hideousness of this argument when she writes

Women's organisations have fought against the equation of the struggle against female foeticide with the “right to live” mobilisations which deny women the right to abortion. It is condemnable that official agencies including State governments have provided anti-sex determination platforms to religious leaders of all hues to spread their reactionary message against abortions. These are politically incorrect decisions which reflect the lack of a coherent policy framework. It is this which should be condemned, not the legal framework against female foeticide.

Those who fight for abortion rights do not condone female feoticide. They are different and yet similar in some ways because both, are indeed a woman’s right to live.


Brubaker, Sarah Jane. 2007. “Denied, Embracing and Resisting Medicalization: African American Teen Mother’s Perceptions of Formal Pregnancy and Childbirth Care.” Gender and Society 21(4):528-552

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1991. “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43(6):1241-1299

Fraser, Nancy and Linda Gordon. 1994. “A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a keyword of the US Welfare State.” Signs 19(21):309-336