Interview: How Planned Parenthood lost its ‘political Teflon’
At this time last year, Congress was locked in a fierce battle over Planned Parenthood’s funding. The group received $657 million in federal funds between 2002 and 2009 for women’s health services that do not include abortion. In 2011, that funding became one of the last sticking points in a fight over the nation’s budget. It was the first year that both chambers of Congress voted on legislation that would strip Planned Parenthood of its federal dollars. That bill was ultimately defeated in the Senate on April 15, 2011.
Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of the Susan B. Anthony List, one of the country’s largest pro-life organizations. She’s worked in pro-life politics for decades, serving as director of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus in the early 1990s, and has never before seen such success in challenging Planned Parenthood. “Not one legislator would touch family planning funding then, no matter how pro-life you were,” she said. “You could never potentially be perceived as taking on family planning.”
Dannenfelser and I spoke today about what changed, how it happened and how she sees abortion politics factoring into the 2012 election. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and grammar:
Sarah Kliff: Around this time last year, Congress was voting on whether to continue Planned Parenthood’s federal funding. Tell me a bit about what’s happened in the past year.
Marjorie Dannenfelser: It’s different as night and day. We’ve gone from a political environment where they were untouchable to being very vulnerable, and at the center of a political battle. They lost their political Teflon. They’re very sharp, and very smart, so they still have a lot of money that sustains them. So this isn’t happening without a battle.
Twenty years ago, when I was on the Hill as the director of the Pro-Life Caucus, not one legislator would touch family planning funding then, no matter how pro-life you were. You could never potentially be perceived as taking on family planning. Now, the real nature of the fight is about taking on the nation’s number one abortion provider. That’s the fight we’re having, rather than one about family planning.
How did this happen? Was it something that changed in 2011, or something that’s been building up over the course of a few decades?
I don’t think it would have happened had Obama not been elected president. When he was elected, and he was an advocate for Planned Parenthood in every single aspect, it really sensitized the taxpayer to what they were funding. Then you had those Lila Rose videos, where they did the sting operation. The combination of that, and then you had the continuing resolution battle, and then we were able to leverage that as part of the same fight. It takes a tipping point, and Obama helped achieve it.
When I talk to Planned Parenthood, one of the things they point to is how the last year has energized their base, and brought on more supporters. What do you make of that, and what have you seen happening among the grass-roots, pro-life movement?
Their energy is heightened out of necessity, because they’re under attack. Our side is energized by success. Being a determining factor in the budget fight, until the end, that was a big thing. And that got new people to be involved, who were brought on by attacks on conscience. Since Obama became president, it’s broadened our base, and added resources to the pro-life movement.
Where we do get in trouble is that, as a strong institution, they’re very effective. None of us are are as big as they are; no pro-life organization is even close. You can do all kinds of things with cash, like challenging the laws we’ve passed in nine states. They also have the Obama administration on their side, which has threatened to cut off [all Medicaid funding] to states that defund Planned Parenthood. That’s a pretty strong arm.
As you mention, the Obama administration has blocked a number of states’ efforts to end Planned Parenthood’s funding. How do you move forward with your work, when that’s a big obstacle?
One thing is that their backlash is not grass-roots. It’s court-based. I don’t think that bodes well for the Obama base. Having Health and Human Services block these laws isn’t the same power as individuals supporting them. Every single state that has passed these laws, the health departments and governors have made it very clear that these services will continue, just not at the country’s number one abortion provider. If Planned Parenthood would let go of its central contention, that abortion is the same as breast cancer screenings, they would be able to participate.
Where do you expect this issue to go in 2012? Will we see Planned Parenthood get the same level of focus as it did in 2011?
Once you get past May, it’s all about the general election, and it gets very difficult to get legislation moving in the states or in the House. Clearly, we’re trying within the House. And we’ll continue battling on the state level and continue to heighten those issues.