Planned Parenthood Agonizes Over Their Bad Press

by Jay Johansen
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I was browsing Planned Parenthood's web site recently and I came across the text of a speech given by their president, Gloria Feldt, to the National Press Club. She made a number of fascinating statements that I think are worth commenting on.

Her basic argument was that the press routinely use language that is biased against abortion. I found this a surprising claim, given that pro-lifers have routinely had exactly the opposite complaint. So let's look at some of her specifics.

(Note: This is not the full text of her speech. I've tried to pull out the most relevant extracts. You can find the full text at

Planned Parenthood My response
I want to examine the barking that often passes for political debate. To discuss how words are used—and misused—and the effect this has on the political process and, more importantly, on our lives. Mostly, I want to talk about solutions…how we can work together to turn racket to reason ... reverse the corruption of language ... the corrosion of thought. [Note: Ellipses (the three dots) are in the original.] Pro-lifers agree whole-heartedly! Let's use honest, descriptive terminology, and avoid language that has built-in biases.
Language creates context—shapes and defines how people think about issues. When "affirmative action" became "reverse discrimination," redress for generations of racial and gender oppression was set back. When the word "feminist" became demonized, women demurred with "I'm not a feminist but..." Well, the abortion debate is hot enough, I don't want to get involved in a debate on affirmative action also. But feminism has been tied to abortion enough that I'll take the chance on that one: When she says that the word "feminist" has been "demonized", what does this mean except that many people no longer see it as a positive thing? So ... how is it a "corruption of language" for people to say that they disagree with a certain social or political idea? This sounds like simple whining to me.
Let's look at how women's reproductive health and freedoms are damaged in the crossfire, through choice of topics, choice of words, and choice of positioning.

Let's start with choice of topics. The birth control pill is 40 years old. Yet oddly, only one-third of insurance plans cover oral contraceptives for women. Even fewer cover all FDA-approved methods of birth control. That's one reason why women spend 68 percent more than men out of pocket for health care. The Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage Act is designed to rectify this injustice. Two and a half years after EPICC was introduced, Congress has yet to enact it. So tell me, what did you hear about EPICC or contraceptive coverage until Viagra hit the scene? I was so glad for Viagra! Viagra made clear to almost everyone the fundamental gender inequity in health insurance, because insurance plans were immediately ready to cover Viagra.

Hmm, her first example of how the corruption of language has poisoned public discussion of abortion, and I don't see how her example has anything to do with language -- this example is irrelevant. But as long as she brings it up, let's discuss it.

Surely we can think of reasons why health insurance might not cover contraception that have nothing to do with bias against women. Namely: health insurance policies routinely exclude "elective procedures", that is, anything that might otherwise be considered medical care, but which is not required to treat an illness, injury, or other specified condition. My health insurance doesn't cover hair transplants. Far more men than women get hair transplants. Does that make this exclusion a case of sex discrimination (against men)? I doubt it. They just don't cover any elective procedures. And surely the reason why is obvious: If they covered elective procedures, than lots of people who don't think that a breast enhancement or a hair transplant is worth the cost would decide that it was worth doing when it was free, the number of such procedures would increase dramatically, and insurance premiums would skyrocket even more than they already have.

Why do insurance companies cover Viagra but not contraceptives? My guess would be that it's because Viagra is a treatment for a failure on the part of a human body to function as it would in a normal, healthy person, while contraceptives are not. The ability to get pregnant is not a "failure" of any bodily organ or a symptom of a health problem. Indeed, if someone couldn't get pregnant, that would be a failure of her body to function properly, and treatment would qualify for coverage under most health insurance.

Of course, there is no reason why insurance companies must dogmatically follow a general rule. Insurance companies often have different details in their coverage. Some insurance companies do cover contraception. If this coverage is important to you, I am not aware of any law that would prohibit you from purchasing such a plan. So why is Planned Parenthood pushing a law that would force all Americans to pay for insurance plans that have this coverage, even those who don't want or need it? I understand that many Catholics have religious scruples against most forms of contraception. Should they be required by law to buy a product that they believe it is immoral to use? Indeed, it could be argued that their premiums will be used to provide this coverage to others, so they would be forced to help others engage in activities that they consider immoral.

Huh, I thought Planned Parenthood was "pro choice" on moral issues.

By the way, did you know that 35 states introduced contraceptive coverage bills in the last year and there were 436 articles about that. Impressive, until you see that only 26 states had so-called partial birth abortion bills yet the articles on this topic numbered 3,891! It's easy to see how the public's thinking has been influenced by the choice of topics. Well, maybe that's because the details of exactly what is covered by somebody else's insurance policy just isn't a subject that interests most people. But the question of whether partial birth abortion is or is not the killing of an innocent baby is a something that people take more seriously. You may as well ask, Why is there more media coverage of the war in Afghanistan than of K-Mart's financial problems?
Perhaps you've also noticed that even when the issue is family planning, anti-choice strategy is to create an abortion battle where none exists, if you let them get away with it. Year to year to year, funds for international family planning, not one dime of which goes to abortion, is attacked as though it were abortion funding. In the past, "international family planning" funds went to organizations that actively lobby for changes in the laws of foreign countries to reduce or eliminate restrictions on abortion -- obviously in countries that presently have significant restrictions. It is hardly surprising to find that pro-lifers object to their tax dollars being used to work for changes in laws in a direction that they oppose. Suppose that the U.S. government gave money to an organization whose stated goal was to persuade foreign governments to eliminate laws against teen smoking and subsidize tobacco growing. Do you think people who oppose smoking would object? Even if they could prove that not one dime of the money actually went to buy a cigarette which was then given to a teenager, would that end the objection? Would the anti-smoking group be "creating a tobacco battle where none exists" by opposing such a use of their tax dollars?
And that leads us to choice of words. Under the guise of "objectivity," language can be corrupted. Of course it's essential to present contrasting points of view. But having a point of view is no license to distort the facts. For example, you've heard of emergency contraception—a high dose of birth control pills that substantially reduces the chance of pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of intercourse. If every woman of reproductive age had ready access to this emergency contraception, unintended pregnancy and abortion could be cut in half—an outcome pro- and anti-choice groups could rally around, or so you'd think. Yet anti-choice forces want to block availability of emergency contraception. Language is their weapon. They equate emergency contraception with—yes, of course abortion. That label, or should I say libel, for emergency contraception has no support in law, policy, or medicine. Yet the press frequently accords their claims equal weight with the facts. Reporting falsehoods doesn't give the story balance. It merely makes for bad reporting. Ah, now we're getting to the stated subject of the speech: Accusations of the mis-use of language. So let's look at her argument. By definition, "emergency contraception" is taken after sexual intercourse has already taken place -- as she herself notes, within 72 hours or so. If a sperm is going to fertilize an ovum, that happens well before 72 hours have elapsed. Therefore, when "emergency contraception" is used, conception has already taken place. (Or has not, but either way, the deed is done -- it's not going to happen a week later.) The word "contraception" means "preventing conception". So how can so-called "emergency contraception" really be "contraception"? As it isn't even used until after conception has happened, it cannot possibly prevent conception. What it can and does do is destroy the results of conception. The word "abortion" means "termination of a pregnancy" (to use the phrasing preferred by pro-abortionists). Pregnancy begins with conception. "Emergency contraception" abruptly ends a pregnancy that has already begun. Therefore, by definition, it is a very early abortion.

Of course, some people oppose late-term abortions but not early abortions, and I suppose if you're going to make distinctions based on the length of the pregnancy, an abortion within the first few days is going to pass muster for you. But it's still an abortion. It's just an abortion that you consider early enough to be morally acceptable.

So how is it a corruption of language for pro-lifers to use language that is strictly medically accurate, rather than language that is plainly technically inaccurate?

Some pharmacists elect not to provide emergency contraception, citing a so-called "conscience clause" — another abuse of language that deserves to be challenged. Whose conscience? Whose conscience counts? What about the doctor whose conscience says children should be planned and wanted? What about the patient's conscience? Individuals have a right to their beliefs. But to imply that one conscience sets the standard is absolutely a corrosion of thought. When new reports parrot such inaccurate framing, how can Americans think clearly about these issues? Some pharmacists refuse to dispense drugs that cause abortions because they oppose abortion, and it would violate their conscience to actively assist someone in obtaining an abortion. They want a "clause" in the law or a contract that says that they will not be required to do things that violate their "conscience". So how is it an abuse of language to call such a thing a "conscience clause"? What other term would be more accurately descriptive of what this person is asking for?

The speaker then goes on to a baffling argument that, as best as I can figure it out, claims that such conscience clauses somehow violate the rights of others who don't have the same moral or ethical standards. She concludes, "To imply that one conscience sets the standard is absolutely a corrosion of thought". Okay ... so why does the conscience of the person who wants the abortion set the standard? We don't even have a case here where one of them has to win. If a person seeking an abortion cannot get the drugs she wants from one pharmacist, she can always go to another. A conscience clause does nothing to stop her from obtaining an abortion. At most it inconveniences her by forcing her to drive to the next pharmacy down the street. But if a pharmacist is forced to participate in an abortion, his rights of conscience have been violated.

Huh, I thought Planned Parenthood was "pro choice" on moral issues.

There's no better example than the verbal pyrotechnics over so-called "partial birth abortion." This is not a medical term. It's a sound bite—a PR campaign created to incite and confuse. And it has been diabolically successful. Ralph Reed even acknowledged it was an explicit strategy to undercut the primacy of the woman and make her secondary to the fetus. I don't know that anyone ever claimed that "partial birth abortion" was a medical term. It's a legal term, invented by legislators for the purpose of having clearly-defined terms to use in a law. What's not clear is why this is a criticism. Legislators make up terms to use in laws all the time, and I can't recall ever before having heard this be a cause for objection. I don't know of anyplace where the word "exemption" is used to refer to family members other than in tax law. It never occurred to me that that was grounds for criticism of the tax code. Hey, considering that pro-abortionists have in fact succeeded with this line of argument, and gotten laws against partial birth abortion overturned on the grounds that this was not a proper medical term, do you think that I could get a court to overturn the whole tax code on the grounds that words like "exemption", "deduction", "tax bracket", etc etc are all words that were just made up for tax laws and are not terms used in medicine, engineering, sociology, pyrotechnics, or any other recognized field? I'll have to talk to my lawyer and see how far I can go with this one.

The speaker doesn't say what term she prefers, but generally abortionists prefer the term "Dilation and Extraction", or "D&X" for short. But if the question is accuracy and descriptiveness, surely this term is much less so. There are many forms of abortion in which the woman's cervix is dilated and the unborn child then extracted. This term does not in any way make clear how this particular procedure is different from other forms of abortion. But the term "partial birth abortion" is quite plain: we are talking about abortions in which the unborn child is partially born before the abortion is done. So her objection appears to be that it is more honest to use a vague, unclear term rather than a clear, descriptive term. I can't help but wonder if her objection to the term "partial birth abortion" is that it is just too descriptive, that it makes it too clear to anyone who hears it exactly what we are really talking about, and that's exactly what she wants to avoid.

Bans on abortion procedures sprang up across the country. Planned Parenthood warned that the language was too vague that doctors could be prosecuted for performing many types of abortion at all stages of pregnancy. We were right. Eighteen courts have enjoined these bans on these grounds alone. Speaking of misleading language: "We were right". The proof? "Eighteen courts" agreed with her. The fact that she could find eighteen people in the country who agree that a certain idea is true hardly proves that it is, in fact, true. Even if those eighteen people happen to be judges. When courts rule in favor of pro-lifers, Planned Parenthood doesn't say, "Oops, I guess we were wrong." No, they say the judge was wrong, often in quite forceful terms.
Language is not only what is said, but who says it ... I can't believe James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson are the only religious figures willing to discuss politics on camera. Perhaps inadvertently, Christian fundamentalism has been positioned as the authentic American religion. Yet there are thoughtful people of many faiths who could speak, would speak. Indeed, Planned Parenthood has many in our Pro-Choice Clergy Network. We'll put you in touch! The voices of the many people of strong faith who support reproductive freedom, equality for women, the rights of gays and lesbians, and other compelling issues deserve to be heard. So she is saying that Christian fundamentalism is not an "authentic American religion"? What arrogance! It's not enough for her to say that she disagrees with these people, but she insists that, what, they don't even really exist? I don't know of anyone who denies that there are religious groups that defend abortion. Why can't she concede that there might be "authentic American religions" that oppose abortion?
Corrosion of thought also rears its head in how points of view are defined. You'll remember the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian. He was gunned down last fall in his home in front of his wife and children. The killers, still at large, believe it's legitimate to murder someone with whom you disagree. I was asked to appear on a Network TV show to discuss the murder and its implications. I was told it would not be a debate. Why would there be a debate? There is no "other side" to cold-blooded murder, right? How could democracy survive if there were another side? But by air time, the host had put a representative from National Right To Life on to oppose me. "To be fair,"" she said. Predictably, my opponent immediately tried to turn the program away from the murder of a physician and into yet another abortion debate. Fairness, my eye. I mean, would you have Trenchcoat Mafia members "debate" survivors of the Littleton massacre? Or gay bashers to justify the murder of Matthew Shepard? When the issue is murder, there is no other side! If the news story was simply about a murder case, then why was the president of a politically activist organization invited to be on the program? I would expect a news story about a murder to include interviews with the police, witnesses, perhaps family and friends of the victim and/or the accused. What would a political activist have to say that could possibly be relevant? Unless ... unless she planned to exploit this murder in some way to advance her political agenda. In which case, it makes perfect sense to include someone with opposing views to rebut such an attempt.

"When the issue is murder, there is no other side!" Hey, that could be a good slogan for pro-lifers. The speaker's organization continually explains that, even if abortion is killing a baby, still, we have to consider the other side: the social and financial problems of the mother, the sociological problems caused by unwanted children, the economic impact of overpopulation, etc etc. But when the issue is murder, there is no "other side".

Fact: 90 percent of Americans support family planning and three-quarters would even spend more tax dollars on it. They agree that without public funding, there will be more teen pregnancies, more sexually transmitted infections, and higher rates of HIV/AIDS. People strongly support sex education in schools. Two out of three believe abortion should remain accessible to women. Public health experts agree that family planning is one of history's greatest boons to the health of women and children and to a sustainable world. Yet listen to the talk shows. Read the newspapers. Family planning is defined by a biased minority as a plot against "American values." It's the oldest political trick: incite the public against one thing to distract them from another. Equate contraception with abortion and maybe the public won't notice that you oppose all contraceptives, and want to end family planning programs and restrict access to reproductive health care. Yes, it's the oldest trick in the book: Make up a term that sounds like something nobody could be against, like "family planning". Who could be against families? Who could be against planning? Define it to include some things that nobody could be against, like combatting teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Then casually toss "and abortion" into it. When someone objects, howl, "How could you be against something so wonderful as planning our families?!"

A few years ago the U.S. government was debating a plan for "national health insurance", basically that the government would take over the health insurance industry. I saw several newspaper stories about a survey that, the reports said, found that a majority of Americans believed that any such plan should include coverage for abortion. I was surprised by this result ... until I came across a news story that printed the actual text of the question. It was, "Do you believe that any national health insurance program should include coverage for reproductive health, such as prenatal care, childbirth, and abortion? Yes or no?" Clever, huh? They gave people no option to say yes to childbirth but no to abortion. If anyone did, they could casually put their response down as "other or no opinion".

So what do we do? How can we ensure that language clarifies rather than corrupts? I yearn for media coverage that digs deep—that brings clarity to real issues. And just what is the real issue of choice? It's not a euphemism for abortion. Choice is about making deliberate child bearing decisions, considering all medical and moral options, without government interference. It's about women having an equal place at life's table. It's about truly valuing children. "Pro-choice" people like to say that they are not "pro-abortion", they are "pro-choice". Really? Does the speaker believe that there should be no laws at all, that everyone should be allowed to make whatever decisions he likes, considering all moral options of course, without government interference? I doubt that she is "pro-choice" on stealing, or wife abuse, or rape. Just a few paragraphs earlier she made it quite clear that she is not "pro-choice" on killing abortionists. She is only pro-choice on killing unborn babies. She is not "pro-choice". She is "pro-abortion".

She then makes the astounding statement that to be pro-abortion is "about truly valuing children". How in the world does a belief that one should be legally permitted to kill a child who inconveniences you "about truly valuing children"?? Abortionists routinely attack pro-lifers for "equating the rights of a fetus with those of a woman". Presumably that means that they do not make this mistake, that they do not think that children have the same rights as adult woman. And now somehow the belief that children should have less protection than others say they should have makes her more "pro-child"? I don't get it.

Barbara Jordan called choice "a fundamental right of a free people." This is why the debate is so passionate. Because it's about our identity and our self-determination as human beings. The right to kill an innocent baby is a fundamental right of a free people? Pretty scary. The second sentence is true: that's why this debate is so passionate. On one side are those who say that no one should have the right to kill an innocent person, no matter what their justification. On the other side are those who say that they believe that the right to kill people who get in the way of their personal fulfillment in life is a fundamental right, that to deny them this right it is to make them less than full citizens. Yes, the debate is passionate.
If the issue were only about abortion, why don't abortion opponents work with us to reduce unintended pregnancy? Why aren't they clamoring for contraceptive research, sex education, and universal access to family planning? Pro-lifers are working to reduce unintended pregnancy. We just find that almost nothing the other side suggests as a route to this goal makes any sense to us. But sex education is a big subject all by itself, and I'm not going to get into details here.
Planned Parenthood has a plan to help. We're engaging citizens with our Responsible Choices Action Agenda.

Now, speaking of language, don't think we didn't focus group the term "Responsible Choices" to within an inch of its life! But I can assure you that Responsible Choices is more than a sound bite.

How interesting. Earlier she attacked pro-lifers for considering the public relations impact when using the term "partial birth abortion". Now she proudly says that her organization did the same thing when deciding to use the term "Responsible Choices". It's dishonest for pro-lifers to consider the PR impact of a term, but just good common sense for pro-choicers to do the same thing.
I'm eager to debate abortion when abortion is the topic. But there's so much more to it and we're all the poorer when extremists are allowed to define issues narrowly and inaccurately. Yeah, just try to get a pro-abortionist to really talk about abortion: to talk about what it is, what that thing is inside the mother's womb, and what happens to him. They won't. They immediately change the subject. They start saying, "The question isn't whether abortion is right or wrong, but who decides". They say, "I'm not pro-abortion, I'm pro-choice". Etc.

A thought that just occurred to me: Go read the full text of this speech. It's all about abortion, right? Yet it contains not one sentence that even indirectly describes abortion. Indeed, she takes pro-lifers to task for using words that do describe specific abortion procedures, like "partial birth abortion".

She wants to talk about everything but abortion.

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Posted 18 Mar 2002.

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