In February of this year, the US House of Representatives—led by the newly-elected Republican majority—voted to strip Planned Parenthood of the federal money it typically receives. While the Senate refused to go along with the GOP’s effort to defund Planned Parenthood, the fact that such a measure even came up for a vote shows a disturbing trend: religion and politics are mixing in ways that pose a threat to the continued improvement of the human condition. Republicans and their fundamentalist Christian backers claim that Planned Parenthood harms society by cheapening the value of human life (by providing abortion services) and encouraging irresponsible sex (by providing contraception). Preventing abortions and making it more difficult to buy condoms, say religious leaders, would make American society more child- and family-friendly.
I have to wonder: where is the concern for the children already born into this world and the adults those children eventually grow into? By making sure that people—particularly women, and particularly poor women—don’t have access to good sexual information or reproductive services, “pro-life” Christians are basically guaranteeing an overpopulated, dangerous society with too few resources to deal with too many social problems.
Planned Parenthood was founded in 1916 by Margaret Sanger, a woman who had watched her own mother die at the age of forty after 18 pregnancies and 11 children. Margaret Sanger became a nurse and worked with poor immigrant women in New York’s Lower East Side. She saw women’s lives cut short by the strain of too many pregnancies, and ignorance about birth control meant that many families had more children than they could provide for. Without the ability to control reproduction by either birth control or abortion, families were stuck in a cycle of poverty and misery when parents couldn’t possibly have enough time or money to make sure that every child was well cared for. Worse, many of those unwanted children grew up with few opportunities, resorting to crime or remaining chronically unemployed. Sanger realized that if every child were born to parents that were ready for him/her and had enough resources to feed, clothe, and educate the children they had, many societal problems would shrink dramatically. So Sanger formed an organization that would provide women and men with the information and services they needed to learn how to plan their families rather than get “surprised” by unsustainable pregnancies. Over the decades Planned Parenthood helped women take control of their lives by teaching them about how human reproduction worked, providing access to birth control, and, yes, making sure that a woman had access to safe and legal abortion services rather than risking their lives with unscrupulous “back alley” doctors or amateur methods.
It seems like simple common sense. Children whose parents are ready for parenthood and can financially support them are more likely to succeed in life and less likely to engage in antisocial behavior. Women’s lives are better when they understand how their bodies work and can make informed decisions about sex and contraception. In a world of limited resources, no one is helped by forcing a woman to go through with a pregnancy that she knows she’s unable to handle. Keeping sexual-health information and services away from people who need them won’t discourage anyone from having sex; it will just fill up our prisons faster and ensure that we as a society always have too many mouths to feed.
So why are the Christian fundamentalists who control the Republican Party so dead-set against Planned Parenthood? For one thing, they’re absolutely obsessed with a tiny sliver of Planned Parenthood’s services: abortion. To hear religious zealots tell it, you’d think that your local Planned Parenthood office is an abortion factory, enticing pregnant women off the street and murdering unborn babies for fun. In reality, abortions constitute less than 10 percent of what Planned Parenthood does (and no federal funds go toward abortion anyway). The rest of the time, they’re screening women for cervical cancer, giving pregnancy tests, helping pregnant women stay healthy, and taking care of new mothers and their babies. Many of Planned Parenthood’s clients are poor, with no other access to these services that clearly improve the lives of women AND children.
But it’s no fun for religious people to talk about improving women’s lives, and especially not women who may not be the absolute ideal of (white, wealthy) Christian femininity. Adult women might make choices that offend fundamentalist norms, and their already-born children need education and services that cost tax dollars. Instead, let’s idealize the fetus! In its first trimester, it’s a kidney-bean-sized pile of cells—there’s no way it will force us to think about difficult topics or make costly choices. Plus, they can smugly talk about knowing the exact moment when “life” begins. Too bad they don’t seem to be too invested in “life” over the long haul.
As much as the Religious Right wants to make the issue of Planned Parenthood’s funding into a debate about abortion, it’s much more far-reaching than that. Regardless of one’s opinions about abortion (I myself would like it if abortions weren’t performed after the first trimester), the continued survival of Planned Parenthood is vital for a safe and secure future in which every child is wanted and our population does not outstrip our resources. I want my daughter to grow up in a better world than this one. I want her to have the knowledge and the tools available to make responsible choices. I don’t want her to have to live in the society Margaret Sanger saw over ninety years ago: a dangerous, violent, and overpopulated place dominated by ignorance and desperation. But that’s exactly what we’ll have if we keep letting Puritanical religious freaks set our public health policy regarding sex education, contraception, and, yes, abortion.
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