What Planned Parenthood means to different women

To some women, the nation's top abortion provider is a symbol of abomination. To others, the provider of health care to low-income women is a symbol of hope. To almost all, it is the foremost symbol of the abortion debate.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters
A member of the New York Police Department stands outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Manhattan borough of New York late last month.

When antiabortion advocate Rita Russo talks about Planned Parenthood, her aversion is clear.

“I see Planned Parenthood as an organization whose main goal is to provide abortion for profit,” says Mrs. Russo, who twice a year coordinates prayer vigils outside of abortion clinics in the Boston area. “They say they provide women’s health services, but that is a smoke screen. We’re paying half a billion dollars to an organization that’s killing babies.”

But for Buxi Iacobone – who first visited a Planned Parenthood in Athens, Ohio, as a college student after her mother lost her job and their health insurance – the organization represents safety, security, and affordable service from people interested in her reproductive well-being.

“It’s the best care I have ever received,” says Ms. Iacobone, now a graduate student at Columbus State Community College and a regular Planned Parenthood patient and volunteer. “Nobody’s going to be turned away because they don’t have money, or because there’s a language barrier, or because of decisions they’ve made. I don’t know how that value can be quantified.”

The two women’s opinions embody the stark divide in the abortion debate in the United States today. In recent weeks, the debate has intensified, including a fatal mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Nov. 27, and a Senate vote Thursday to block federal funding for the group. More deeply, experts say, the dispute comes down to American society’s struggle to accommodate two fundamental human values: a moral imperative to protect children, and a woman’s right to reproductive health and freedom.

That struggle, they say, is exacerbated by a political and media culture that tends to simplify discourse into two opposing sides, and to regard compromise as a sign of weakness.

“The political imagination we have pits two very strong goods against each other,” says Fordham University ethicist Charles Camosy. “Babies are babies, and we ought to protect babies from violence. And women are persons, and we ought to allow them to make decisions about their bodies.”

“When people try to hold these two values together, it becomes more complex, and it doesn’t fit into 140 characters or a headline. It doesn’t work for campaign sound bites,” he continues. So politicians, advocates, and the media do the easier thing, Professor Camosy says: “We pull away into these two camps and lob grenades at each other.”

'We don't need Planned Parenthood'

Planned Parenthood is a major US provider of reproductive health services, operating 700 centers that serve about 2.7 million patients across the country. The group and its affiliates provide pap tests and breast exams, birth control information and services, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases – all of which amounted to about 97 percent of its functions for 2013, according to its most recent annual report.

It is also the nation’s largest abortion provider, terminating 327,166 pregnancies in the US in 2012 – or just under half of the 699,202 legal abortions performed in the country that year.

For those who believe that abortion is an unconscionable act, that fact is more than enough reason to pull the plug on Planned Parenthood. 

“Abortion is the taking of a life,” says Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. “You can be in favor of the taking of a human life, but if you’re opposed, there’s no middle ground on that.”

Others take the argument further, saying that Planned Parenthood embodies a broader decline of Christian morality in the US.

“Planned Parenthood is one of the most insidious organizations in the country,” says Ann Scheidler, co-founder of the Pro-Life Action League. “Ever since its founding, it has sought to undermine the integrity of the family, to facilitate immoral behavior … and to lead teenagers into really risky behavior. It’s largely responsible for the breakdown of morality in the country.”

To Mrs. Scheidler, Planned Parenthood’s entire approach – from the provision of contraception to the performing of abortions – encourages women to avoid responsibility for their sexual relationships.

Such a philosophy, she says, leads to a loss of respect for the sanctity of life and marriage. She urges women to focus on other providers and crisis pregnancy centers that uphold those values, noting that there are “plenty of health care options out there.”

“We don’t need Planned Parenthood to take good care of women,” Scheidler says.

'A place of safety'

Ms. Iacobone's experience has led her to a different conclusion. Losing her health insurance when she did, she says, meant losing access to birth control, which she was using to regulate a menstrual cycle with symptoms that included severe acne, anemia, and debilitating pain.

She says she first went to a crisis pregnancy center outside her hometown in Morgan County, where some “very nice people” gave her a pregnancy test and advice on the body’s natural rhythm – but offered little in the way of solutions she found useful.

So Iacobone turned to a Planned Parenthood center in Athens, where she was able to receive a prescription for 13 months of birth control for free.

“I was so relieved, I cried in the car,” Iacobone says.

Nicole C., who has asked to remain anonymous, touts Planned Parenthood’s unbiased approach. Her first visit to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston involved getting tested after a chlamydia scare at her college.

“Everyone [at the clinic] was nonjudgmental,” she says. “That stuck in my mind.”

But it was the care she received three years later that would transform her into a staunch defender of Planned Parenthood and its services.

Wiping tears from her cheeks, Nicole recalls how she learned she was pregnant by a young man she had dated in the summer of 2011. By the time she found out, she says, he had left for his home in England and stopped taking her calls.

Desperate, Nicole – then a college senior – sent him a message on Facebook to relay the situation. “You know, [I hoped] maybe he’ll be into it enough,” she says. “Maybe we could try to make it work.”

He responded by deleting her from his list of friends. She was devastated.

“I thought, I don’t see how I can do this,” Nicole says, her voice breaking at the memory. “I understand why people don’t want abortions. I really do. But I wish they would understand … it was a very difficult decision.”

“This baby’s father didn’t want anything to do with the situation,” she continues. “I had just turned 21. I’m not going to have a baby that I’m going to struggle with and struggle with me.”

About five weeks pregnant and with her parents’ support, Nicole went to Planned Parenthood. The clinic, she says, was meticulous, asking questions to make sure she wasn’t being pressured into the decision. They offered counseling for days before the abortion and provided materials that described her options both if she chose to continue the pregnancy and if she decided to push through with the procedure.

Prior to the abortion, the doctors gave her an ultrasound, which “made me feel better and worse,” Nicole says. The fetus in her womb was 0.46 centimeters big, she recalls. “I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever forget.”

The procedure took about 20 minutes, she says, and they offered her counseling afterward. But what really stayed with her was the sense that the people around her were there to help – not to judge, Nicole says.

“I’m always going to think of Planned Parenthood as a place of safety,” she says. “Whatever issues I have, whether it’s an abusive relationship or if I decide to finally have a child, they’re going to be there and offer great services that are affordable. I’ll probably never go anywhere else for women’s health issues.”

Reframing the debate

In the months following the release of videos that purport to show Planned Parenthood employees discussing the sale of fetal tissue for research, antiabortion activists have renewed calls to halt government support for the agency.

"These videos have been discredited, and so have the false claims behind them," said Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, in an e-mailed statement, adding that the group provides health-care to over 30,000 Massachusetts residents a year. “We've seen an alarming increase in hateful rhetoric and smear campaigns against abortion providers and patients over the last few months."

The Senate vote Thursday to defund Planned Parenthood came as part of a larger bill to defund Obamacare, which also passed Thursday night. The bill is expected to be vetoed by President Obama. By law, government funds are already prohibited from being used in abortion procedures.

Despite what the media and political rhetoric suggest, many Americans do not identify with an abortion debate that gravitates toward the extremesIn a Vox poll released in April, 18 percent of respondents said they were both "pro-life" and "pro-choice," while 21 percent said they were neither. Another survey, conducted by Gallup, found that 51 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal but only in certain circumstances.

Part of the problem is that abortion is by nature a contentious issue, says Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“We are talking about the most important things about being human: the creation of another human being and sex and reproduction. Those are two really important, crucial human issues that have become pitted against one another,” she says.

Perhaps the best way to move past those polarized extremes is to reframe the debate by focusing on where most Americans find common ground, Fordham’s Camosy says.

“What we should do is to find ways to support the genuine choice of women and support babies at the same time,” he says. “Can’t we go after those two goods? Can’t we protect babies and support women?”

This article has been updated to include a statement from Planned Parenthood.

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