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The Planned Parenthood Controversy

Abortion, a subject that always seems to be inserted into the grandiloquence of presidential politics, has again become a central theme in the upcoming 2016 election. A new debate among legislators and the public at large about the federal funding for Planned Parenthood has arisen. 

The latest incarnation of the abortion issue became center stage when the incongruously named Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group, produced what amount to sting video tapes allegedly showing the sale of baby body parts for medical research by Planned Parenthood earlier this summer. There are reportedly approximately 12 hours of footage. The content, accuracy, and to what extent the videos have been edited are a topic of much debate and investigation around the country.

At this time the general consensus about the videos is that they do show officials from Planned Parenthood discussing fetal tissue in ways that could be construed as coldhearted and appalling. However, there doesn't seem to be any blatant instance on video where Planned Parenthood discusses procuring fetal tissue for profit. There also doesn’t appear to be any strong clear moments on video of the sensationalized and goulash descriptions of squirming babies about to have their brains harvested as some candidates and commentators asserted.

The use of fetal tissue has produced some groundbreaking scientific discoveries due to the tissue’s capacity to rapidly divide, grow, and adapt to new and various conditions. Notably in 1954 researchers managed to grow the polio vaccine in fetal kidney cell cultures. In more recent years and in a changing technological medical landscape the use of stem cells for therapeutic and research purposes has become more of a central focus than fetal tissue.  Nonetheless, it remains legal to donate tissue from a legally aborted fetus and for that tissue to be used for research purposes. This is all part of a wider general dialogue that includes such terms as cell structure and DNA that worries much of the public at large.

Moral and ethical concerns about medical research are nothing new. Often these apprehensions combine with long held beliefs and superstitions to further frighten the public. When has the religious right, for example, ever presented medical research in a positive light? Most often medical research is criticized as “playing God.” An example of this would be the attitude toward human dissection. Through the eighteenth and a good part of the nineteenth century the human form was considered sacrosanct. This kept human dissection for medical research difficult to perform. State and church opposition to dissection and other anatomical experiments kept knowledge of the functional aspects of disease elusive. During this time period fear of dissection was a common phobia and fixation. 

In England the artist and satirist William Hogarth published a series of prints depicting a fictional story entitled “The Four Stages of Cruelty.” The fourth print, “The Reward of Cruelty,” portrays a public dissection. The images reflected the feelings about dissection of the era so well that within a short while after the publication of the series the Murder Act of 1752 stated that the bodies of murderers could be provided to surgeons for dissection as a further deterrent to crime and to address the shortage of cadavers at the time.

As the nineteenth century rolled on in America oddly enough it was another of mankind’s obsessions, one that never seems to be held back because of moral or ethical reservations, that was about to blow the lid off of any trepidations about exploring human anatomy; war. The Civil War helped change modern medicine.

At the time The Civil War was about to begin it had been about seven or eight decades since there had been any significant fighting on the continent. As war was about to begin in 1861, medical science was not prepared for the scale of violence that was about to begin with new and advanced weaponry. In a short time doctors were treating massive and gruesome injuries in large numbers that many of them would not have otherwise treated during the course of an entire normal medical career. In addition, soldiers from small towns came together in large assemblies and became exposed to pathogens that their bodies had no resistance to in an era when there were no antibiotics and antiseptics. During these barbaric conditions of The Civil War doctors learned techniques that forever changed medical care on the battlefield and beyond. For example, it became clear that cleanliness reduced infection and fatalities. There were great strides in understanding neurology, pain management, and other fields. In the years following The Civil War much of the mystery surrounding the form and function of human anatomy was removed and replaced with knowledge as how to better treat disease and injury. Mysticism was slowly replaced with logical scientific methods in the fields of anatomy and medicine.

It is a general given that we fear the unknown. We have a tendency to cling to long held beliefs and standards of which we are comfortable and that we understand. We are now at a new precipice of science and medical research, one that reaches not only into the anatomy of the body but of our cells, our DNA, and the very building blocks of life itself. Just as images of human dissection frightened Europe and America during the early Victorian period, tall tales of human baby parts being collected in some Frankenstein like manner in these Planned Parenthood videos have the imaginations of millions of Americans running wild. The only thing the videos are missing is a wild-haired mad doctor screaming, “Give my creation life!” It is propaganda that is designed to frighten and lather up the public against pro-choice positions.

Autopsies are rarely considered sacrilege today. Hopefully in the near future the paranoia about the research and medical advancement of stem cell research, genetics, and tissue growth will seem as silly. In the meantime we must strive to keep all of this in perspective.

The role of religion, specifically how religion is evoked to limit women’s access to reproductive healthcare, cannot be understated. A good example of this is the plethora of hyperbole regarding contraception being a sin. Oddly, a man’s choice to have a vasectomy is never referred to as an abomination against the blessedness of procreation. Nonetheless, as recently as 1965 married couples had the right to birth control but millions of single women in 26 states were denied it. It wasn’t until 1972 that The Supreme Court ruled that birth control was legal for all citizens regardless of marital status.

If it really was the goal of the pro-life movement to unambiguously reduce abortions they could do so immediately without changing any laws or restricting women’s rights.

The first step would be to champion, not hinder, public access to contraception and sexual education and counselling. Recent declines in the number of abortions coincides with a reduction in the number pregnancies. The use of IUDs and other contraceptive implants has risen enormously since 2009 among women with access to publicly funded contraceptive methods and care. It is nothing but pure common sense that the ability of women to actively prevent an unwanted pregnancy rather than to retroactively choose whether to continue with an unwanted one reduces the abortion rate.

I have no idea why contraception is considered a sin by many people and why there is so much resistance to publicly funded contraception devices or including them as part of healthcare.

When the dynamics of suggesting that contraception is a sin are examined the nature of the awkward logic of it really begins to break down. What is the best contraception? Saying "no?" Therefore saying “no” to sex is a sin? Don’t laugh. There are many on the religious right who suggest that a wife cannot deny her husband sex.

A second way of reducing abortions would be to reduce the stigma of single motherhood and to support, not resist, public funding for single mothers needing assistance or wanting to further their educations. Again, it’s pretty much common sense that if women feel like there is support in whatever form they need for them and their child it makes it easier to become a mother. Yes, there has to be controls in place to keep the system from being abused. However, by and large the pro-life community who proclaims the “sanctity of life” for the unborn rarely uses the same term for those who are born and who are living in poverty.

There are many on the religious right who have a societal and economic disconnect with those who live in poverty. It is a world they cannot understand. They don’t know why it is that if the poor need women’s healthcare that they just can’t jump into their Acura and drive to the doctor’s office. According to reports for 2012, almost 80% of individuals receiving services from Planned Parenthood were living near the federal poverty level if not below it. Many women do not have healthcare insurance that covers a trip to a private gynecologist not only for contraception but for pap smears or cancer screenings. Many women do not have parents or other family members that they can rely on for advice or help in difficult situations. In fact, many women living in poverty are often more likely to be trapped in unfortunate circumstances which often include emotionally or physically abusive situations. 

Government funding for Planned Parenthood is an infinitesimal fraction of the overall federal budget at approximately $500 million. The aftermath of the undercover videos is currently driving the defund Planned Parenthood and the renewed abortion debate. However, abortion is only a small part of the services Planned Parenthood provides. The vast lion’s share of services are for sexually transmitted disease, contraception, cancer screenings, and other women’s healthcare services. In the year 2013-2014 approximately 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services went to abortion. Critics of this 3% statistic call attention to the fact that this figure does not necessarily explain how much of Planned Parenthood’s revenue comes directly from abortion. However, the notion that some on the religious right as well as other critics have contended that abortion is offered as a free and on demand governmental service is a fallacy. Medicaid in some cases does allow funding for abortion only in very restricted circumstances such as rape, incest, or life of the mother. States wishing to expand any provisions for abortion do so at their own expense. Patients for the most part pay for abortion services themselves or obtain assistance through their own auspices.

The move to defund Planned Parenthood is nothing but political grandstanding. I find it ironic that one of the organizations most responsible for the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and consequently lower abortion rates is the one most demonized about abortion. Additionally, the horror drama depicting all of Planned Parenthood as suppliers of body parts to Dr. Frankenstein is a slap in the face to the majority of the staff of Planned Parenthood who are dedicated to the cause of women’s healthcare, especially the healthcare of poor women. The vast majorities of employees of Planned Parenthood often work for less compensation compared with that of private practices and have had nothing to do with this controversy. 

For more on this topic please reference my 2013 article A Perspective On the Abortion Issue

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