The Politics of Defunding Women’s Health

Guest post by Alexandra M. Lord

Recently, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation pulled its financial support of breast cancer screening and education programs run by Planned Parenthood.

The reasons for pulling their support?

According to a spokesperson for the Komen Foundation, the organization has adopted a new rule that prohibits grants to organizations under investigation by local, state, or federal authorities. Planned Parenthood is the only organization funded by the Komen Foundation that is targeted by this new rule. Just before the new rule was announced, the staunchly anti-abortion Republican congressman Cliff Stearns had announced that he would be launching an investigation of Planned Parenthood, and the Komen Foundation had hired a new vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, a former politician who has been hostile to Planned Parenthood and contraception in general.

As a historian, I read these kinds of stories and feel frustrated. Frustrated because this is a tactic that has been successfully used by the Far Right in the past. Under the Bush Administration, a similar tactic was used to undermine organizations promoting sex education. Aggressive—and multiple—audits were conducted of organizations promoting sex education. The audits, which consistently found nothing wrong, were clearly used to intimidate and disrupt these organizations.

The tactic taken by the Komen Foundation is clearly in the same vein.

But I also feel deeply frustrated when I read these stories because I think many of the people who call for an end to contraception, who attack sex education, and who dismiss the idea that abortion is ever necessary completely lack any understanding of the past.

The founding of Planned Parenthood (which occurred at the same time the federal government began to provide sex education) was a direct response to some very harsh realities. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s own family is a case in point. Sanger’s mother had 18 pregnancies, bore 11 children, and died at the age of 40. This was not a unique story in this period. Many women confronted a lifetime of unwanted pregnancies as well a range of health-related problems which stemmed from almost constant pregnancies and complete ignorance about sexually transmitted diseases.

Lacking information about birth control and fearing that yet another pregnancy would destroy their family, many women risked their lives by turning, again and again, to back street abortionists.

The Komen Foundation’s decision—a decision which opens the door for any politician to ensure that any organization can be defunded simply by launching an investigation—seems to be aimed at turning back the clock 100 years. Contrary to what opponents of Planned Parenthood say, a world which denies women information about birth control, access to safe abortions, and preventive medical care is not and never was pro-life.  We need only to look at the past to recognize this.

Update: 1:50 am EST 2/3/12

As the recent reversal of Komen’s decision demonstrates, most Americans are savvy enough to recognize this.

Alexandra M. Lord, a former historian with the U.S. Public Health Service, is author of Condom Nation: The U.S. Government’s Sex Education Campaign from World War I to the Internet, published by JHU Press.

(The views expressed in this guest post belong to the author and in no way do they reflect the official opinion of the Johns Hopkins University Press.)